MILWAUKEE (AP) - The federal agency responsible for worker safety issued the largest fines possible to a Milwaukee company and an engineering firm for a factory explosion that killed three people last year.
The Dec. 6 propane explosion at the Falk Corp. resulted from an underground leak in a pipeline. The fatal blast shook the downtown area, injured four dozen workers and did extensive damage to the factory complex where Falk makes gears, couplings and other industrial components.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced Monday that it fined Falk's parent company, Rexnord Industries, $56,000 for eight violations of safety standards and mechanical engineering firm J.M. Brennan Inc., $16,800 for three violations.
The federal agency does not often issue the maximum fines, spokesman Brad Mitchell said.
Workers from Falk and J.M. Brennan were testing a backup propane fuel system when the explosion happened.
OSHA cited J.M. Brennan for improperly installing the underground pipeline and Falk for failing to protect it from corrosion. It also cited Falk for its failure to identify the hazardous conditions and minimize the danger to workers. Both companies were cited for problems with training and emergency response.
Rexnord spokeswoman Linda Mayer issued a statement saying the company takes safety seriously and would use OSHA's findings to improve its procedures and training. The violations were limited to the propane system and the response to problems with it, she pointed out.
''To the extent that OSHA's findings relate to our continuing operations, we have resolved most of those issues and are working to address the rest,'' she said.
Milwaukee County Deputy District Attorney Kent Lovern announced in March that he had found no evidence to warrant criminal charges in the explosion. Mayer said the company was pleased OSHA's investigation also had determined it was an accident.
J.M. Brennan issued a statement disputing the allegations. It installed the pipeline properly and its workers acted appropriately on the day of the explosion, the statement said.
The engineering firm blamed Falk for allowing the pipeline to corrode.
''J.M. Brennan has an outstanding safety record,'' the statement said. ''During its 75-year history, J.M. Brennan never previously received an OSHA citation.''
The companies have 15 working days to respond to OSHA's allegations. They can pay the fines, ask for an informal conference with OSHA's area director or appeal to the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, a court-like agency that handles OSHA cases, Mitchell said.
J.M. Brennan's spokesman Jeffrey Remsik said the company would ask for an informal conference. A spokesman for Falk Corp. did not immediately return a message asking what it would do.
The families of three Falk employees killed in the explosion have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against J.M. Brennan, its insurance company and American Home Assurance Co., a workers compensation carrier.
The lawsuit claims the engineering firm improperly installed the pipeline, did not test it properly and discouraged a quicker evacuation that could have prevented the workers' deaths. J.M. Brennan has denied those allegations as well.