Fluoride Action Network

Hydrofluoric acid suspected in worker’s death

Source: The Oregonian | January 14th, 2004 | By Stuart Tomlinson
Industry type: Miscellaneous

GRESHAM — Oregon OSHA has cited and fined a Southeast Portland company for seven serious health and safety violations in the July death of a 22-year-old Gresham man.

On July 3, Timothy P. Smith Jr. died at Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital & Medical Center in Portland nearly a month after he inhaled material in a tank he was cleaning for Spencer Environmental at its Southeast Portland facility.

The company, which recycles motor oil and antifreeze, was sold by owner Don Spencer in July and is now called Thermo-Fluids.

Investigators from the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division contend that Spencer employees were not properly instructed and supervised in the safe operation of machinery, and that the company “exercised inadequate supervision, thereby potentially exposing their employees to hazards.”

Investigators also found that the company did not post danger signs on wastewater tanks, had no way to determine whether a respirator was required for cleaning wastewater tanks and had inadequately trained employees.

Don Spencer, who remained with Thermo-Fluids, said the company would appeal seven violations and $32,500 in fines.

“It’s not our intention to create an unsafe workplace,” Spencer said.

On June 10, Smith, who would have been a senior in aviation mechanics at LeTourneau University in Longview, Texas, in fall, went to work on the swing shift at Spencer’s facility at 6400 S.E. 101st Ave.

In a 20-page report, investigators said the plant manager asked Smith to rinse out a 15,000-gallon wastewater tank with a high-pressure washer and vacuum, something he was not routinely asked to do. That job is usually performed by waste oil technicians. Smith, who worked for Spencer for four summers, was qualified as a water technician.

Several times during the cleaning process, the report said, Smith asked another technician about what was in the tank, and told the technician he was experiencing chest pains and a “heavy chest.” He was not wearing a respirator, investigators found.

On June 11, Smith returned to work but complained to a co-worker about chest tightness. On June 12, he went to the Willamette Falls Occupational Health clinic in Clackamas for a physical, which was required because of the company’s pending change in ownership. Doctors there found his lungs appeared abnormal, and that he was coughing and unable to take deep breaths, the report said.

Smith returned to Spencer Environmental that day to fill out an incident report. Under the heading “What actions could have been taken to prevent this incident,” Smith wrote: “Have proper personnel clean the tanks . . .”

On June 14, Smith was admitted for observation to Legacy Mount Hood Medical Center in Gresham with a severe lung injury. He was hospitalized for a week, then sent home with portable oxygen bottles. He felt better for a week, but on June 27, he returned to the hospital.

At 4 a.m. June 28, he was taken by ambulance to Good Samaritan and placed on a ventilator. Whatever had gotten into his lungs was eating away at them, doctors told his family.

At 1:35 p.m. July 3, Smith was removed from life support and died. The cause of death, according to the state medical examiner’s office, was inhalation of industrial fumes.

According to Spencer’s records, the tanks Smith cleaned that day routinely contain hydrofluoric acid, nitric acid, sulfuric acid, phosphoric acid and acetic acid. According to the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee Department of Environmental Health, Safety and Risk Management, hydrofluoric acid is one of the strongest and most corrosive acids known.

Smith later told his uncle, Greg Smith of Gresham, that something splashed his face and he either ingested something, or inhaled toxic fumes. State Department of Environmental Quality lab tests found fluoride ions on Smith’s work boots, shoelaces and T-shirt.

Three other Spencer workers were hospitalized in May with similar symptoms. An independent medical review by Oregon Health & Science University’s Center for Research on Occupational and Environmental Toxicology found that test results and symptoms pointed to exposure to hydrofluoric acid in all three cases.

“We never heard that three other workers got sick just before Tim,” said his aunt, Cheri Smith of Gresham. “It was a shock to get that information.”

Smith said her nephew’s parents, Helen and Timothy Smith Sr., are in Tulsa, Okla., and haven’t seen the report.

Oregon OSHA investigators stopped short of saying hydrofluoric acid killed Smith, suggesting he might have developed a secondary lung infection after being exposed to an unknown chemical.

Smith’s death was not the first involving a Spencer employee and a work-related accident. In October 1999, Thomas Cassell, 45, of Oregon City, died shortly after being pulled unconscious from a gasoline tank at a Spencer facility in The Dalles.

Spencer was cited and fined by Oregon OSHA for violating federal safety violations related to Cassell’s death. Spencer has been cited and fined four times since 1994 for other safety violations in Oregon.

“At first, it didn’t seem that Spencer did anything wrong,” Cheri Smith said. “But clearly, there were violations. I would imagine this would hurt them.”