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Questions amid mourning in Tonawanda Coke death

A Tonawanda Coke employee went to work Wednesday but didn’t come home.

Not much else is known about the 60-year-old man, or how he died, a day after he was killed by industrial machinery in an elevator in the plant’s “coal-handling section.”

“Right now, for us, for the union, it’s just a tragedy,” said James Briggs, an official with Cheektowaga-based District 4, United Steelworkers. “A guy got up to go to work and planned on going home at the end of the day, and his family planned on seeing him. That didn’t happen.”

Local workplace safety experts said that there are supposed to be safeguards in place to prevent fatal occupational injuries.

“Most of the time, I would say almost all of the time, these accidents are very preventable,” said Germain R. Harnden, executive director of the Western New York Council on Occupational Safety and Health. “I don’t know the reason why, but if the company took a shortcut or just didn’t have the proper safety precautions, these accidents happen very easily.”

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is conducting an investigation and has up to six months to issue its findings, though the final report is expected much sooner.

“Workplace incidents are entirely preventable,” said Michael T. Scime, OSHA’s Buffalo area director. “We don’t use the word ‘accident’ because we think that they’re preventable events, and if employers put the proper safeguards in place, then these sorts of things should not occur.”

Briggs said his union’s international health and safety department also has sent a team to investigate Wednesday’s incident.

“We will get to the bottom of what happened and we will make sure that this worker – what happened to him – is addressed in the proper way to make sure it doesn’t happen to another worker at that site or any other site we represent,” he said.

Briggs, Harnden and Scime spoke generally about workplace safety standards and not about Wednesday’s incident specifically because of the ongoing investigations.

But investigators are likely taking a close look at whether the elevator had proper machine guards and a procedure known as “lockout/tagout” in place.

“Those are certainly two areas that we would look at when we’re talking about working in and around machinery,” Scime said.

Machine guards are any barrier that prevents an access point from the worker to the machine, Harnden said.

“There are many types of moving gears and moving equipment that you have guards where you can’t actually touch that,” she said. “It can be on any type of machine. There are many production machines that have guards on them. There’s no pinch point, access point for the worker to the machine.”

“Lockout/tagout” protects workers from hazardous energy releases and involves “de-energizing” a machine before maintenance is performed.

“It’s a safeguard for locking out or de-energizing machines, taking the power source out on a machine so that when maintenance people go in there and clean the machine or maintain the machine or lubricate the machine or whatever they’re doing, that there’s no electrical source to start up the machine,” Harnden said.

The employee may have been performing maintenance on the machinery, believed to be a bucket elevator on a conveyor belt used to haul materials vertically.

“There shouldn’t be that ability for a worker to actually be in that big of a danger working on a machine like that,” Harnden said. “We all know that those workplaces are very dangerous workplaces.”

Tonawanda Coke has a spotty workplace safety record, Harnden said, noting the company’s record of OSHA citations and violations.

OSHA criticized the company in July 2014 for failing to take proper precautions to ensure that its safety systems were working, as well as “additional, preventable hazards” that it said were found at the Tonawanda plant after a Jan. 31, 2014, explosion that injured three workers.

OSHA accused the company of allowing conditions at the plant that exposed workers to potential falls, injuries and dismemberments from unexpectedly activated machinery and an inability to exit the plant swiftly in an emergency.

The explosion collapsed brick walls and damaged electrical equipment. OSHA said that an overpressured coke oven manifold released coke oven gas in an enclosed area, where it ignited. In that case, the company reached a $115,370 settlement with OSHA.

“Would I be surprised to find out they violated the law again?” Briggs said about Wednesday’s incident. “No.”

A company spokesman did not return a call Thursday seeking comment. The company makes foundry coke, a coal byproduct, and was convicted by a federal jury in March 2013 of environmental pollution crimes.

Scime said OSHA’s investigation into Wednesday’s incident is focused on determining the cause and whether federal regulations were followed.

“If they weren’t, there’s certainly the possibility of citations and penalties,” he said. “First and foremost, we’d be looking for corrective action so something like this doesn’t happen again in the future.”