Bethlehem penalties to be reconsidered

September 06, 1995|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun Staff Writer

Maryland's second-highest court yesterday ordered the state labor commissioner to reconsider penalties he levied against Bethlehem Steel Corp. for safety violations in 1993 after a worker was electrocuted by a defective toaster in a Sparrows Point lunchroom.

The Court of Special Appeals ruled that former Commissioner of Labor and Industry Henry Koellein Jr. incorrectly applied state safety codes Nov. 15, 1993, when he fined Bethlehem Steel $3,460 in the death of Raymond Pritts.

Mr. Pritts, 53, of Baltimore, was electrocuted Aug. 17, 1990, when he put his right hand on a defective toaster oven while his foot was touching an air conditioner.

The commissioner ruled that Bethlehem Steel committed a "repeated, serious violation" of Maryland Occupational Safety and Health (MOSH) codes by keeping the defective toaster in the lunchroom because of previous citations from MOSH inspectors about safety hazards posed by other electrical equipment.

The steelmaker had been cited on Jan. 19, 1989, for leaving two floor-mounted electric motors exposed to water and chemicals, and on June 27, 1990, for dry rotted wiring in two overhead cranes, according to court records.

The commissioner's finding of "repeated and serious" safety violations subjects employers to fines of up to $70,000 and is the second-most serious type of citation that may be issued by MOSH, ranking behind willful violations, said Jonathan R. Krasnoff, assistant attorney general.

The toaster had been wrapped induct tape and was rusted, according to court records.

"Our position was that they [Bethlehem Steel] could have detected this if they had exercised reasonable diligence in inspecting their facilities," Mr. Krasnoff said.

Baltimore County Circuit Court Judge Robert E. Cahill Sr. reversed the commissioner on July 11, 1994, ruling that Bethlehem Steel was not put on legal notice that the toaster was a safety hazard just because of the duct tape and rust.

But in its 19-page ruling, the appeals court said yesterday that both the court and the commissioner were wrong.

The court affirmed earlier rulings, saying it did not matter that the toaster was brought into the lunchroom by a fellow worker and was not company property. Because the toaster was in a common area, the company had the duty to maintain it, the court said.

"Bethlehem Steel was, or should have been, aware that the toaster oven was an electrical appliance, that it was in an area of the workplace, and that it was thus available for use and was likely used by a number of employees," the court said.

But the court said that before finding repeated violations, the commissioner must first make a formal finding that the violations are "substantially similar" in nature and not just based on similar state safety codes. No such finding was made, the court said.

Mr. Krasnoff said the appeals court ruling was neither a victory nor a defeat for either side.

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