Leetsdale industrial explosion ruled accidental by fire marshal

Friday, September 13, 2019 | 9:29 AM

The investigation into an explosion that injured four workers at the Hussey Copper manufacturing facility in Leetsdale Industrial Park has ended with the incident being ruled accidental.

The explosion happened early on the morning of Saturday, Sept. 7. OSHA and the Allegheny County Fire Marshal began investigating the incident that afternoon. It is the latest in a series of workplace accidents that have occurred at the plant in recent years.

According to Allegheny County Chief Fire Marshal Matthew Brown, the county investigation ended Sept. 10. He said the fire marshal typically looks for a cause and origin during investigations and found the explosion to be accidental.

It was apparently caused by molten copper coming into contact with water.

“When they create molten copper … there’s a certain amount of time that it needs to cool before entering into the water. Part of the cooling process is that they put it into a cooling bath, and it entered too soon due to equipment failure,” Brown said about the cause of the explosion.

An investigation by OSHA, an agency of the United States Department of Labor, is still ongoing.

“The investigation was initiated on Saturday, September 7 and OSHA has a total of six months to conduct its investigation and release its findings. Per our policy, we do not comment on the nature of ongoing investigations,” Leni Fortson, a public affairs director for the U.S. Department of Labor, said in an email.

Fortson also provided the OSHA inspection history for Libertas Copper, which does business as Hussey Copper. Three accidents involving employees of the plant that occurred in 2017 led to injuries from burns and hospitalizations. OSHA issued two serious workplace safety violations to the company in 2017 and 2018 that came with monetary penalties.

Media reports indicate multiple incidents at the facility within the past year, including fires that occurred this past May, as well as in September and October of 2018.

A representative from Hussey Copper declined a request for comment on the Sept. 7 explosion. A separate message requesting comment on workplace safety was not returned.

Brown recalled two occasions in the past three years when the county fire marshal investigated incidents at Hussey Copper. But he said copper production is “risky business” and that the number of safety incidents at the site does not stand out compared to other manufacturing facilities in the region.

United Steelworkers, which has members who work at the Hussey Copper facility, has begun its own investigation into the explosion. Michael Wright, head of safety and environment for the Steelworkers, said the union has a program to investigate workplace safety accidents and educate companies so they do not happen again. He could not confirm for certain whether all four workers injured are union members.

The extent of the injuries suffered by the workers remains unclear. One was taken to the West Penn Burn Center in Pittsburgh, while three others were treated at Heritage Valley Sewickley hospital. One had been released as of 1:30 p.m. on the day of the incident, according to Ernest Logan, assistant fire chief at the Leetsdale Fire Department.

Brown said Hussey Copper has always been responsive with emergency staff. But Logan voiced concerns with the handling of the recent incident, namely that no emergency services personnel were called to the scene.

“My main concern, really the long and the short of it, was that appropriate emergency medical care wasn’t provided for the people that were injured. It isn’t appropriate that people were transported in private vehicles,” said Logan.

Given the nature of the explosion, “you would think that those people would have been transported to a trauma center,” he said.

Logan also said that a meeting scheduled for the week of Sept. 16 will convene all stakeholders, including emergency response personnel, Hussey Copper staff and Leetsdale borough officials, to discuss the recent accident.