July 7, 1999
Cause of blast at Kaiser unknown
Company doesn't know what it will do with Gramercy plant
Bert Caldwell - The Spokesman-Review
Kaiser Aluminum officials said Tuesday a decision on whether, and how, to
rebuild the heavily damaged Gramercy, La., refinery will likely take weeks.
An explosion at the plant early Monday injured 24, said President Ray
Milchovich. Six people were still hospitalized late Tuesday, two in
critical but stable condition from burns.
He told a telephone conference of company analysts and reporters that
Kaiser officials have still not determined the cause of the blast, or the
possible cost of repairs.
Meanwhile, several lawsuits have been filed in Louisiana state courts on
behalf of area residents whose homes were damaged by a concussion that blew
out windows hundreds of yards away and caked homes as far as a mile away
Milchovich said he had no information on the litigation.
The explosion occurred in a series of tanks called digesters, where bauxite
is combined with sodium hydroxite under high temperatures to create alumina.
Gramercy produces one million metric tons of alumina annually, most of
which is sold to smelters in Kentucky owned by other companies.
None is shipped to any of Kaiser's smelters. The Mead and Tacoma smelters
are supplied from Australia.
Milchovich said one retired member of the United Steel-keeps soda and beer
from eating through the aluminum.
The single giant machine takes 60-inch-wide coils of aluminum and runs them
through a nearly 3,000-foot process, which cleans the metal, coats it with
vinyl, cures, trims and waxes it. The metal is then inspected and
re-coiled. The coater line is designed to run continuously and has two of
the most technical jobs in the entire plant: the coater operator and
According to state reports, inspectors say Kaiser:
* Did not ensure training on how to properly clean and inspect the rolls on
the coating machine that would preclude any employee from placing any body
part in a hazardous area. The report says a foreman showed Autio how to
separate the rolls approximately 1 inch while inspecting and cleaning them.
Inspectors found this leaves a "nip point" that could injure an employee
who came into contact with it. There is no guarding present nor were any
procedural or mechanical changes made since the accident. Penalty: $1,870.
* Did not ensure that the inclined shafting driving the pickup, metering
and application rolls for the bottom roll assembly of the coating machine
was enclosed with stationary casing. The shafts are adjacent and within
three feet of the work platform and employees can be exposed to the
rotating shafts during the half minute the cleaning takes place, the report
says. Penalty: $1,870.
* Did not ensure that couplings at the drive shaft ends were constructed so
as to not have revolving surfaces that could cause serious injuries.
Autio had been a Kaiser employee six years in Pleasanton, Calif., when he
was assigned to Spokane after the United Steelworkers struck Sept. 30.
According to inspection reports, he had been working as a coater operator
for about two months when the accident occurred. He was treated at
Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where he remained under medical care
until March 2.
Autio had returned to Pleasanton and was recuperating when he hanged
himself in a public park near Oakland, Calif., June 18. Detectives who
investigated concluded that injuries from his industrial accident played a
major role in his suicide.
Autio was interviewed by Washington state officials before his death, as
were other employees at the Trentwood plant.
An investigation worksheet on the accident concludes there were
environmental and human factors involved, including Autio misjudging a
The accident could have been prevented by the employee fully opening or
spreading the metering and application rolls to eliminate the nip/catch
point, inspectors wrote.
* Julie Sullivan can be reached at (509) 459-5497 or by e-mail at
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