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OSHA investigators say R.M. Palmer Company failed to protect workers before gas explosion

Rubble is cleared at the site of a deadly explosion at a chocolate factory in West Reading, Pa., Saturday, March 25, 2023.
Michael Rubinkam
Rubble is cleared at the site of a deadly explosion at a chocolate factory in West Reading, Pa., Saturday, March 25, 2023.

Federal investigators have determined that a chocolate factory in West Reading failed to evacuate workers before a gas explosion killed seven people, injured at least 10 and displaced many from their jobs.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration said the company ignored employees’ concerns about a smell of gas in the building.

“Seven workers will never return home because the R.M. Palmer Co. did not evacuate the facility after being told of a suspected gas leak,” OSHA Area Director Kevin T. Chambers said in a statement announcing the findings of the investigation. “The company could have prevented this horrific tragedy by following required safety procedures.”

The company is also cited for not marking exits with signs and using electrical cords that were spliced together in an unsafe way. There were also citations for not documenting employee fatal work injuries on time.

For an explosion that killed seven people, injured several, damaged neighboring properties and displaced many from their jobs, OSHA is recommending a penalty of roughly $49,000. That includes a penalty of $4,464 from citations that were issued earlier due to paperwork violations.

“OSHA penalties are based upon the classification of the citation that was issued, the employer size, and then other factors, such as the employers, inspection history, safety, health management programs, corrective actions, and essentially it’s all put together into a standard formula,” Chambers said in an interview.

R.M. Palmer Company said in a statement that it “intends vigorously to contest OSHA’s citations, which it believes are legally and factually unsupported.”

The company has 15 business days to contest the citations.

The company, which is a party in the NTSB investigation into the accident, said it is barred from commenting substantively on OSHA findings.

“In the meantime, we can, however, assure our employees and the community that R.M. Palmer does not agree that it has violated any provision of OSHA’s workplace standards,” the company said in its statement.

The company cited NTSB’s July investigative update, in which the agency reported it found a cracked 1982 DuPont Aldyl A service tee that led to a gas leak. According to those findings, the 1982 service tee “was less than 2-feet from subsurface infrastructures that ran between Palmer Buildings 1 and 2, including a steam line, a condensate line, and several heated chocolate pipelines.”

R.M. Palmer Company claims that service tee was “under a public road,” and notes that the NTSB investigative update “contains no reference to any natural gas leak inside any Palmer building.”

NTSB notes in its report posted online that “information is preliminary and subject to change.”

More than a dozen lawsuits have been filed against R.M. Palmer and UGI Utilities since the accident in March, some from families of victims who died in the explosion. One of them, filed by the family of blast victim Judith “Judy” Lopez-Moran, a 55-year-old mother of three, alleges workers reported the odor of gas the day of the explosion, but the company “did nothing” in response.

“We encourage every employer to make sure that their employees have a voice within the workplace with regards to their own safety and health,” Chambers said. “It’s important to listen to your employees. It’s important to take their observations into consideration, because they need to work together, the employees and the employer, to ensure that they’re providing a safe and helpful work environment.’

Gabriela Martínez | WITF