Execs face criminal charges over safety violations

Here’s more proof that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration under President Obama plans to put more bite in its bark.

Two companies and two executives now face federal criminal charges in connection with the deaths of five workers at an electric utility in Colorado.

Xcel Energy Inc., and two executives with RPI Coatings, Inc., are accused in the deaths of the five men in a 2007 fire inside a tunnel at an Xcel Energy hydroelectric plant in Cabin Creek.

“This catastrophe could have been avoided if the companies had followed safety procedures,” said Greg Baxter, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s regional director in Denver.

OSHA claims the men, all employed by RPI Coatings, were inside a large, empty water pipe when a fire erupted. The fire blocked their exit and the men died.

However, before the fire, there had been reports of several safety incidents that posed a direct threat to the employees. OSHA alleges the two executives knew about the safety shortcomings but failed to take appropriate actions to correct the problems.

Xcel has called the deaths a “tragic accident,” and said it rejects “any attempts to characterize the events in any other way” other than an accident.

Each company is charged with five counts of violating OSHA regulations and causing death, which could bring fines of $500,000 per charge.

The two executives, who face the same charges, also face up to six months in prison and a $250,000 fine for each of the five counts against them.

RPI Coatings also faces one count of obstruction for allegedly altering or destroying records and documents. The company denied that charge and says it plans to fight it in court.

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