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Cal/OSHA fined a San Francisco Bay Area refinery and three contractor companies more than $1.75 million for safety violations following the November 12, 2021 death of a 35 year old worker, Luis Gutierrez, who suffocated while trying to clean a well.

Three of the four employers were cited with willful and serious violations after determining that they failed to follow confined space guidelines, including the failure to determine acceptable entry conditions for the employee, which resulted in exposure to an oxygen-deficient atmosphere.

A willful violation is cited when evidence shows the employer either knowingly violated the law or took no reasonable steps to address a known hazard. A serious violation is cited where there is a realistic possibility that death or serious physical harm could result from the actual hazard created by the violation.

San Antonio-based Valero bought the refinery in 2000, which processes crude oil into gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel and asphalt.

Shortly before midnight on November 12, 2021, the worker lost consciousness after descending into a regenerator overflow well at the Valerio Benicia refinery to evaluate the condition of the well interior and perform cleaning operations in advance of a welding crew.

He was found inside the regenerator suspended by fall protection equipment. A refinery emergency rescue team retrieved him. Benicia Fire Department and Valero Fire Department performed medical treatment on-site but were unable to resuscitate him.

Valero spokesperson Paul Adler confirmed the death and described the victim as a worker for a contractor. Cal/OSHA later confirmed that the contractor was JT Thorpe, a Richmond-based company.

Inspectors determined that a welding torch was left in the well that was leaking argon, an odorless gas that displaced oxygen inside the confined space.

Working in confined spaces is extremely dangerous, as is working with argon,” said Cal/OSHA Chief Jeff Killip. “The employers involved had a responsibility to keep their workers safe. The first step to preventing a completely avoidable fatality is to identify hazards before a worker enters a confined space.”

Confined space hazards exist in many workplaces. Employers must identify and label confined spaces, establish and maintain onsite emergency response plans, and provide training for workers and supervisors. Common types of confined spaces include tanks, silos, pipelines, sewers, storage bins, drain tunnels and vaults.

The fines given to the Valero Refinery totalled $528,750, Total Safety Specialty was fined $988,000, JT. Thorpe & Son, Inc. fine was $135,500 and finally T.R.S.C., Inc. was fined $101,125.

Among the violations were failure to: evaluate the workplace to determine if any spaces are permit-required confined spaces, ensure employees use equipment and safety precautions during the rescue of an employee, and monitor unauthorized entrants into workspaces.

Cal/OSHA has extensive informational materials on its website, including a confined space guide for general industry to help employers provide safe workplaces and ensure workers know these hazards.