WASHINGTON – An investigation into one of Bethlehem Steel Corp.’s worst Maryland accidents in the last two decades found the company innocent of any wrongdoing – a sore point for one of the victims.
But state inspectors and that victim give the steel manufacturer credit for improving safety conditions since the explosion.
On Jan. 5, 1988, a container filled with a rust prevention chemical exploded at Bethlehem Steel Corp.’s Sparrows Point Division, killing one worker and injuring three.
The accident occurred when two workers had trouble pouring a thick chemical from a 55-gallon drum into a smaller bucket, according to Maryland Occupational Safety and Health records. The workers placed a torch under the drum to force the fluid to expand and pour.
After three minutes the liquid began to flow. But then it caught fire and blew the top off the drum, MOSH records state.
Valentino Goralski, a 54-year-old maintenance worker who stood closest to the drum, suffered severe burns to 98 percent of his body. He died a week later at Francis Scott Key Medical Center, MOSH records state.
Three other workers received burns in their attempt to help Goralski, according to MOSH. One of them, then 52-year-old pump repairman Richard Dause, remained in a hospital for two weeks, he said.
MOSH inspectors concluded that the employees had received proper safety training and “should have known better” than to place a torch under a combustible liquid, said Craig Lowry, chief of compliance at MOSH.
Bethlehem Steel was not cited for any violations.
Ted Baldwin, a spokesman for the company, said he does not want to comment on the cause of the accident because he is not familiar with what happened.
Dause, who received burns from his hands down to his thighs when he threw himself onto Goralski to try to extinguish the fire, said he was disappointed with MOSH’s investigation.
“I honestly feel that they were not looking for what happened,” said Dause, who now works for Bethlehem Steel as a job planner.
Dause said the drum containing the liquid was not properly labeled and the workers did not know that the chemical could catch fire. He said heating substances with open flames to make them thinner used to be a common practice at Bethlehem Steel.
Goralski was “the safest worker I’ve ever known,” Dause said.
Lowry said the drums were properly labeled, and the employees had been instructed in the handling of combustible materials.
MOSH records give Bethlehem Steel credit for producing guidelines for the handling of the chemical after the accident.
Dause said the company has gone “absolutely overboard” with its safety and health measures since the explosion.
He said he likes the fact that the company now has data sheets for every solvent and cleaning fluid, but he is critical of the newly created safety committees, which exist in each unit of the plant. “Some people join the committees just to get out of their work,” he said. But, he added, “usually some good comes out of it.” – 30 –