OSHA Fines Florida Utility $500,000 for Energy Plant Deaths of 5 Employees

A Florida power company has agreed to pay a $500,000 fine for a 2017 explosion that left five workers dead.

Tampa Electric Co. has pleaded guilty to violating an Occupational Safety and Health Administration standard, causing death, according to a plea agreement filed Friday in Tampa federal court. It was one of two accidents at one of its power plants that year that seriously injured workers.

The agreement outlines safety procedures that TECO must follow in the future. The agreement also notes that the company previously reached civil settlements with the families of the victims and others injured by the explosion.

“All of us at Tampa Electric hold the families of our late colleagues and coworkers in our hearts,” TECO president and CEO Archie Collins said in a statement. “We have accepted full responsibility, and we hold ourselves accountable as we continuously work to improve our safety programs and safety culture.”

The explosion occurred at TECO’s Apollo Beach power plant, located just off Tampa Bay, in June 2017. Workers had been performing maintenance on a slag tank when the unexpected substance poured out, officials said. One TECO employee and four contractors died following the blast.

Hot slag is a molten byproduct created when coal is burned for electricity. Chunks of it fall into cooling tanks and the remnants, which are black and glasslike, are recycled and used in sandblasting and roofing.

The accident was the first of two incidents at a TECO facility that year. In October 2017, two contract employees were seriously injured at TECO’s Big Bend Power Station south of Tampa.

Donald Gansner and James Carter were working for Zachary Industrial when they were sent to repair a leak. The two were about to perform work on an access door on one of the condenser units at the plant when the door blew open, slamming the workers with a massive column of water, the court explained.

Gansner was unable to return to work, one lawsuit said. Carter fractured his spine. The men received workers’ compensation benefits through Zachry Industrial, but they and their families also filed a negligence lawsuit against TECO, charging it had caused the mishap at the power station.

Florida’s 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled in November that the utility company was shielded by the workers’ comp statute. The court had initially held that TECO was liable. But after rehearing the case last fall, the appeals court found that TECO’s obligations to maintain its Big Bend Power Station was required by regulation and, thus, the company may be considered a statutory employer, immune from high-dollar lawsuits and bound only by the exclusive remedy of workers’ comp.

Another contract employee was killed in an incident at a TECO power station early in 2021.

Photo: Visitors to the Tampa Electric Company’s manatee viewing site in Apollo Beach. An outflow of warm water from the power plant attracts the manatees in winter. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

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