Cal-OSHA investigating fatal 300-pound fuel tank explosion at ranch on Highway 59 near Snelling

rparsons@mercedsunstar.comDecember 12, 2013 

— A ranch worker was apparently grinding a 300-pound gasoline tank late Wednesday afternoon when the tank exploded, killing the worker and seriously injuring two other workers, a state health and safety official said Thursday.

The names of the man who was killed and the two who were injured have not been released.

Peter Melton, a spokesman for the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health, was careful to note that the investigation is still in its early stages and said details may change as the inquiry progresses.

One of the workers suffered severe burn injuries and another suffered “less serious injuries,” Melton said.

“We know one remains in the hospital and the other is expected to be released (Thursday),” he said.

Cal-OSHA said initial reports indicate that three workers were reconditioning three gasoline and diesel fuel tanks on a ranch on Highway 59, about halfway between Snelling and Merced.

“It is believed they had finished one tank and were working on the second when that one exploded,” Melton said.

The ranch is apparently operated by a ranch management corporation that contracted employees through Big Valley Labor Inc. of Winton, authorities said. The name of the ranch management company could not be confirmed Thursday.

Big Valley Labor did not return phone calls seeking comment.

It was not clear Thursday whether any gasoline was in the tank when it exploded, but two welding experts said the dangers come from gasoline vapors and fumes, not necessarily the fuel itself.

Robert Erwin, owner of Cal-Trade Welding School in Modesto, said that gasoline is “more explosive” than diesel fuel.

“But the problem with tanks is the fumes, not the liquid,” he said. “In general, you just make sure there are no fumes. I’ve even filled gasoline tanks with water before working on them for my own peace of mind.”

Tom Martin, a welding instructor at Modesto Technical College, agreed.

“Standard procedure is to make sure the tank is purged and you take a reading to make sure there are no fumes or vapors,” Martin said.

Both men stressed they were speaking only regarding the accepted best practices for their trades and not commenting on Wednesday’s incident in Merced County.

Whether all proper procedures and safety protocols were followed before the deadly explosion is the main focus of the Cal-OSHA investigation.

Melton confirmed that the incident was quickly reported by both Big Valley Labor and the Merced County Sheriff’s Department. He said investigators would examine the ranch’s Injury-Illness Prevention Plan and interview all witnesses and employees.

“We have up to six months to complete any investigation,” Melton said.

If any violations are found, the state can issue citations and equipment restrictions.

Reporter Rob Parsons can be reached at rparsons@mercedsunstar.com or (209) 385-2482.

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