February 26, 2020

State reduces UM penalty Safety unit to be formed

ORONO – State fines against the University of Maine stemming from a fatal accident this summer at a university research center have been reduced, according to state officials on Friday.

In conjunction with the announcement, UM officials also promised to set up a new department for overseeing environmental and safety issues.

The Maine Department of Labor, in its final citation for a July accident at the university’s aquaculture research center in Franklin, earlier this week reduced its fines from $111,000 to $51,000, according to a letter to the university from Michael Frett, director of the department’s Bureau of Labor Standards.

The fine imposed by the state is not insignificant, according to Mark Anderson, UM interim chief financial officer.

“Fifty-one thousand dollars is a lot of money – money we would have preferred to put into the [new] program,” Anderson said. The university has no plans to appeal the final citation, he said.

“We’re going to pay the fine and move on,” Anderson said.

William O’Coin, 43, of Ellsworth, died July 29 of asphyxiation when he climbed into a concrete tank at the center to help his co-worker George Schaefer, 16, of Sullivan, after Schaefer was overcome by fumes while cleaning the tank.

Schaefer suffered serious injures to his lungs and was in an intensive care unit in a Boston hospital for 16 days before being transferred Aug. 21 to a hospital in Bangor.

Schaefer is now out of the hospital and has resumed classes at Sumner Memorial High School in Sullivan.

University officials met Sept. 9 with state officials and gave them a proposed abatement plan. In his letter, Frett stated: “I have completed a review of that plan, and find it appropriately responsive to the circumstances of the assessed violations. The complexity and expansiveness of the plan provides a reasonable measure of assurance that a safe and healthy work environment will be restored.

Anderson said Friday the university did not promise to create the new Department of Safety and Environmental Management in exchange for a lower financial penalty.

“We’re making that commitment, whatever the level of the fine was,” he said. “Certainly, the obligation [to provide safe work conditions for university employees] isn’t new.”

The proposed department will absorb entirely the university’s existing environmental health and safety department. It will incorporate training activities currently in its human resources department and regulatory compliance issues now handled by its facilities management department, Anderson said.

The university hopes to hire a director for the new department by next February and a full-time safety trainer for university employees soon thereafter, he said.

Bonnie Sparks, Schaefer’s mother, said Friday afternoon that the university’s proposal makes sense.

“It certainly sounds like it is advantageous to have such a department,” Sparks said. “It’s unfortunate that it took such a tragic accident for it to be created.” Sparks, who said she had been unaware of the amended citation, declined further comment.

Adam Fisher, assistant to the Department of Labor commissioner, said Friday that reducing fines is not uncommon in cases where a violator takes steps to fix unsafe conditions.

“We took a look at the whole package and felt they took sufficient effort to improve the safety of their workers, which has been our goal all along,” Fisher said. “In this case, the university has committed itself to significant ongoing expenditures.”

Preliminary citations issued by the state in connection with the fatal July accident included 12 corrections the university completed in August, according to university officials. The proper labeling of confined spaces at the aquaculture center – such as the one in which O’Coin died – providing safety training and equipment to employees, and preparing emergency procedures in the event of an accident were among those required corrections.

Anderson said Friday the university has taken or is pursuing additional steps recommended by Woodard & Curran, a Portland engineering consulting firm hired by the university after the accident.

An electrical panel at the Franklin facility has been brought up to code, and officials plan to develop weight restrictions for some platforms at the site, he said. Those restrictions have yet to be determined because the platforms are accessible only through confined spaces, which are still temporarily off-limits, he said.

The university also intends to inspect its other facilities, such as the Darling Center in Walpole and its cooperative farms, to ensure they are in compliance with safety regulations, Anderson said.

State labor officials have reviewed UM’s plans for the new safety department, Anderson said, but they have not made any specific requirements for its operation.

“We developed the concept and shared it with them,” Anderson said. “They didn’t have much to say. They thought we had done a good job.”

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