Federal investigators told newsnet5.com the death of a TimkenSteel worker over the weekend was "preventable" in light of a nitrogen exposure violation issued earlier this year.
A spokesperson for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said Monday that the employee likely died from nitrogen exposure.
Perry Township Fire Chief Mark Martin said firefighters were were called out to the Faircrest Steel Plant at 4511 Faircrest St. SW in Canton for a non-responsive person Sunday afternoon.
The worker, who the company identified as a fire technician, was later pronounced dead at the scene.
The Creston Police Department announced late Sunday that the victim, Kenny Ray Jr., was one of their own. Creston police officials said he was a full-time safety officer at the plant as well as an EMT and firefighter in Uniontown.
OSHA opened an investigation into the worker's death, the agency announced Monday.
"This is unacceptable behavior and the company needs to be held accountable for it," OSHA Spokesman Scott Allen said in an interview with newsnet5.com.
According to OSHA, readings by the company and fire department detected oxygen levels in the area where the employee was found were less than 4 percent. Oxygen levels below 20 percent can lead to suffocation.
“We offer our thoughts and prayers to the family and friends of the worker who died in a preventable workplace incident,” said Howard Eberts, OSHA’s Area Director in Cleveland. “Companies that have nitrogen systems need to make sure that they recognize the hazard of oxygen deficiency that can be created by its ability to displace oxygen.”
Officials say nitrogen, which is used in the plant, was somehow released in the control room where the worker was inspecting fire extinguishers, creating an oxygen-deficient atmosphere.
OSHA previously issued a citation in January at the facility related to nitrogen exposure in May 2015, according to the agency. Those citations were contested by the company.
"TimkenSteel plants have an extensive OSHA history and that's why they’ve been placed on the severe violator enforcement program," said OSHA spokesperson Scott Allen. "It's just simply unacceptable that this company continues to not protect their workers from workplace hazards. This has to be corrected immediately."
The violation is one of 9 citations currently being contested by the company, which declined newsnet5.com's request for an interview.
In a statement attributed to Tom Stone, vice president of industrial relations and environmental, health and safety at TimkenSteel, the company said:
“Our safety and manufacturing teams are working closely with OSHA and doing further investigation to determine the cause of Kenny Ray Jr.’s death at the Faircrest Steel Plant on Sunday.Kenny was checking fire extinguishers throughout the plant as part of his duties as a TimkenSteel fire technician. Our security team found him unresponsive in a fifth-floor elevator motor room. Nitrogen exposure is suspected and our team is working with officials to investigate.We have been working with OSHA and our workforce on additional actions to strengthen our safety program. We have addressed every issue that OSHA has identified at our facilities over the past year. Further, we hired an independent auditor to do assessments and took additional actions. We also engage employees in safety auditing and follow up on every concern. This is our highest priority.We want to thank OSHA, Perry Township Fire & Rescue and TimkenSteel’s first responders for their help.This is a sad time for our entire workforce at TimkenSteel. We want to express our sympathies to Kenny’s family, friends and the communities he served as a police officer and firefighter.”
Kenneth Ray Jr. (Kenny) was a 11 year veteran of the Uniontown Fire Department. He was well liked by his fellow brother/sister firefighters and loved the communities in which he worked. Kenny would be one of the first people to take the new recruits under his wing to share his knowledge and his experience. Kenny was one the first to step up in any situation to get the job done. His fellow firefighting family is devastated of his passing and will never forget the legacy that he has left behind.