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The Orange County, California, District Attorney’s Office obtained a $1.6 million judgment in a civil case against a plastics manufacturer for “willfully” endangering employees by maintaining a hazardous work environment, prosecutors announced on Wednesday.
Solus Industrial Innovations, which has been operating a plastics manufacturing plant in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, since 2007, was cited by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health for willfully, knowingly and intentionally maintaining an unsafe and hazardous work environment for their employees after two workers were killed in an explosion caused by a water heater that was never intended for commercial use.
“The defendants intentionally discarded a commercial boiler to avoid the cost and permitting requirements of proper installation,” a statement reads. “Solus instead purchased and installed an inexpensive residential water heater, knowing that it was not equipped to function at a commercial level. In March 2009, the water heater exploded, senselessly killing two employees.”
Cal/OSHA investigated and “determined the explosion had been caused by a failed safety valve and the lack of ‘any other suitable safety features on the heater due to manipulation and misuse’ because Solus used a residential water heater instead of a commercial one.”
In March 2012, the district attorney in Orange County filed a criminal suit against Solus’ plant manager and its maintenance supervisor for felony violations of the labor code for “knowingly operating an unsafe work environment, which resulted in the death of two employees, according to the statement,” according to the statement.
The deaths and “evidence” of further violations caused Cal/OSHA to refer the case to the local district attorney’s office, which agreed that Solus’ practices were “egregious” and proceeded with civil litigation, Santa Ana-based Orange County Deputy District Attorney Kelly Ernby told Business Insurance in March 2018.
The civil suit resulted in the $1.6 million settlement, $1.5 million of which will go toward civil penalties and $100,000 for additional victim restitution, according to the statement.
The case raised concerns over civil penalties in workplace safety violations, according to legal experts.
Solus could not immediately be reached for comment.
The Washington Department of Labor and Industries is hailing its status as one of the top states for workplace safety, showing a workplace fatality rate that is 30% below the national average, according to a report from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics in December.