Forty people are trying to figure out why a boiler exploded at Hermiston Shearer’s Foods factory on February 22, sparking a fire that destroyed the building and put 231 people out of work.
Umatilla County Fire District No. 1 Investigator Scott Goff said Tuesday, April 5, that the site review has been delayed. First, there were problems because the rubble was so big it was hard to sort it out. In addition, it took time to bring the parties involved together. Over the past two days, high winds have pushed back the survey, which was the final delay.
The review of the destroyed Hermiston plant, which once employed 231 people, brought together people from the fire district, Shearer, insurance companies and representatives from the equipment and contractors involved, according to Goff.
Speculation on the cause
Although the direct cause of the cause of the explosion is still unknown, a former Shearer’s Foods employee says lax security measures may have contributed to the explosion.
“I saw a lot of things,” said Stephen Dean. “I’ve spoken with several peers I had who no longer work there about the number of conversations I’ve had about this place being a ticking time bomb.”
According to Dean, when he heard about the explosion and the resulting fire, the first words that came out of his mouth were, “I told you so”.
He said he was surprised the fire, which destroyed the building, sent a handful of people to hospital and left 231 people out of work, was not worse. After all, no one died.
He said he was responsible for plant safety, working directly with the management team. He said he “provided security culture and influence and led security policy and procedure” for about a year from early 2018 to early 2019.
The Hermiston Herald contacted Shearer’s corporate office to verify Dean’s employment. Shearer management, however, said the company would not share employment information out of respect for employees and their privacy.
Dean, however, was able to present a letter of employment and his own letter of resignation as proof that he had worked there.
Early in his employment, he said, he researched the facility extensively to identify risks and hazards and found some that he considered “high-risk” and “high-consequence.” “. He was particularly concerned about the oil fires, he said.
While he was at the factory, Dean said, there were “a bunch of mini-fires”, which were the result of material accumulation in furnaces. In the policies and procedures, he said, workers were supposed to clean the ovens when they were in a safe state. According to Dean, procedures changed so that workers instead used compressed air to clean the ovens.
“You don’t put compressed air on fires,” he said.
He said it was just one example of the culture at the factory. The practices were dangerous, not necessarily because one person misdirected them, but because those practices turned into dangerous ones, he said. Dean said once people start doing things one way, they pass those habits on to new workers and the behaviors take root.
OSHA steps in
Aaron Corvin is the Public Information Officer for Oregon Occupational Safety and Health, or Oregon OSHA. He confirmed that the agency was investigating the February 22 explosion and fire. He said in an email that OSHA does not discuss the status or details of active cases and will share information about them once the investigation is complete.
“Over the past five years, Oregon OSHA has conducted four inspections of this site, two of which resulted in citations. One of the citations was a result of an accident investigation,” Corvin said.
In one case, he said, the employer initially appealed the citation, but later withdrew the appeal.
Missing safety meetings were among the causes for citation.
Complaints of security issues
Dean said he spoke about the major security risks to company administrators when he was at the company.
“I couldn’t get anywhere with management,” he said. “They were spending millions on production and innovation, but they weren’t spending anything on the security department. While they had an astronomical production budget, we barely had enough to pay for personal protective equipment.
Dean described his job as “working from scratch” and “building up a grassroots program when there was nothing to work with.” He said he quit out of frustration. “An agent of change in the industry”, he said he had worked for a long time to solve security problems in different companies. After working with Shearer’s, he felt he couldn’t improve safety because he couldn’t encourage management to prioritize safety.
“It was a direct management issue, in my view,” Dean said, “in how they perceived, prioritized, and felt about the safety of factory workers.”
He said he repeatedly raised security concerns with senior management, but to no avail. Managers not only failed to make changes, they rejected his recommendations entirely.
“Their direct response, verbatim, when I raised these security concerns was to ‘calm my boobs; they’ve been doing this for 40 years. That’s the expression they used,” he said.
Meanwhile, Dean said, the company was also neglecting environmental regulations.
The only thing he said he was able to do was create an active evacuation plan, which the company lacked before he was hired. He says he also organized evacuation drills.
“It was hard to do, because it affected the production,” he said.
He added that there were additional concerns, particularly regarding the treatment of workers.
“They were working people until they couldn’t work anymore,” he said. This was a safety concern, he said, as exhausted workers would intentionally break safety rules in the event of a lockdown. Having broken these rules, management would punish them with three-day suspensions.
“It was motivation for them to take their breaks,” Dean said.
He said his co-workers routinely report their own infractions, just to be sent home to rest or to attend a funeral or other necessary event.
Answers to come
Goff, while working at the site for the fire district, said investigators should be able to remove the roof from an area they want to investigate soon, barring weather delays. Then they should be able to have answers to the explosion by the end of this week, he said.