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Probe of VA hospital worker deaths finds safety violations

June 2, 2021 GMT

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — A federal investigation of a hot steam accident that killed two workers at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Connecticut found workplace safety violations and concluded the deaths were preventable, according to a report released Wednesday by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The workers had just finished repairing a steam pipe in a maintenance building on the West Haven VA campus on Nov. 13 when a fixture broke off the pipe, flooding the work area rapidly with steam, OSHA officials said. The accident happened as workers were refilling the pipe with steam, authorities said.

Killed were VA maintenance worker Euel Sims, 60, a Navy Veteran from Milford, and private contractor Joseph O’Donnell, 36, of Danbury. Three other workers were injured.

The OSHA investigation found nine workplace safety violations by the West Haven VA, including failing to have procedures and safety measures in place to protect workers from such a rapid release of steam. OSHA said it cannot fine another federal agency, but said it would have proposed a $621,218 penalty if the VA was a private employer.

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OSHA also is proposing more than $38,000 in fines against Mulvaney Mechanical Inc., of Danbury, for four serious violations, including failing to adequately train employees on methods necessary to control energy releases. O’Donnell worked for Mulvaney.

“These fatalities could have been prevented if the employer had complied with safety standards that are designed to prevent the uncontrolled release of steam,” said Steven Biasi, OSHA’s area director in Bridgeport, Connecticut. “Tragically, these well-known protective measures were not in place and two workers needlessly lost their lives.”

The VA said in a statement Wednesday that a VA board of inquiry investigated the accident and made recommendations for improvements, many of which have already been put in place.

“VA Connecticut will continue to work closely with OSHA and all relevant VA entities to address the issues identified in the report,” the VA said.

The entire VA health care system also has put in place principles that make safety the responsibility of all employees and empower employees at every level to immediately raise safety concerns, the VA said.

An employee of Mulvaney Mechanical, who declined to give his name, said the company had no comment on the report.

The VA and Mulvaney Mechanical have 15 days from receiving the violation notices to correct the violations, request a conference with OSHA officials or appeal the notices.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, said OSHA’s report also highlights how the aging infrastructure at the West Haven VA is failing and needs urgent renovations and rebuilding. He said the failures have included burst pipes, insect infestations and other signs of infrastructure collapse. He said many VA facilities around the country have similar problems.

“Ultimately patching them with short-term fixes is more expensive than starting over,” he said in a statement. “My hope is Congress will come together in a positive and proactive bipartisan response to build back better at the VA.”