An Arlington Heights company paid more than $26,000 in fines after a federal investigation found five serious violations inside the business in the wake of a deadly May 22, 2012 explosion that killed one person and injured 17 others.
The blast at Arens Controls, 3602 N. Kennicott Ave., happened about 8:30 a.m. May 22 in the company's electronics testing area. It killed Neil Nicholson, 55, of Itasca, and 17 others were treated for smoke inhalation and chemical exposure, none of them life-threatening injuries.
Arens Controls has paid the fine in full and did not contest the citations, said Scott Allen, spokesman for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA has reinspected Arens Controls since the investigation was completed, and that all problems cited in the report have been resolved, he added.
Arens Controls CEO Ken Kunin declined to respond to several calls for comment.
Allen said that OSHA takes into account the size of the company and severity of the violation when determining the level of fines to be levied, not whether a fatality occurred. Although the violations at Arens Controls were labeled serious, they were not repeat, willful or egregious offenses, which could have led to greater fines, he said.
The OSHA report said the explosion took place where hydrogen gas was being created by hydrogen-on-demand units.
"The exhaust system was not designed, constructed, installed, tested and maintained properly to provide safety to life from fires and explosions," the report reads. Arens was fined $6,300 for that violation.
Arlington Heights Fire Chief Glenn Ericksen said it was a powerful explosion, with twisted metal and a buckled roof.
The hydrogen-on-demand technology that was being tested improves the fuel economy of heavy-duty diesel engines. A possible electrical charge ignited hydrogen gas in the vicinity of the test, which Nicholson was working on, and may have led to the explosion, the report said.
The second violation states "procedures were not developed, documented and utilized for the control of potentially hazardous energy," meaning there were not properly documented procedures for what to do if the testing created hydrogen gas, which can be hazardous. The violation resulted in a $6,300 fine.
The third violation, leading to a $4,500 fine, stems from a finding that Arens Controls "did not document the laboratory and the test chamber as hazardous locations," according to the report.
The company also was reportedly not using proper equipment "for the ignitable or combustible properties of hydrogen gas." The National Electrical Code outlines the type and design of equipment to meet the safety requirements for different types of chemicals used in labs. That citation resulted in a $6,300 fine.
Finally, Arens Controls "did not develop a material safety data sheet for hydrogen gas, which was created by the electrolysis process in the hydrogen-on-demand united being tested," the report said. The code says chemical manufacturers and importers must maintain a safety sheet for every hazardous chemical produced or imported. That citation carried a $2,700 fine.
The Cook County Medical Examiner ruled Nicholson's death an accident, and police said there was nothing criminal about the explosion.
Nicholson's family is being represented by David C. Wise, partner in Chicago firm Burke Wise Morrissey Kaveny. A week after the blast Wise filed a motion for discovery in the Circuit Court of Cook County for evidence related to the explosion.
Wise did not respond to calls asking for the family's response to the OSHA report and the fines.
On the day of the explosion, Kunin said in a statement:
"Our heartfelt thoughts and prayers are with the Arens Control Company, LLC employees and their families in the aftermath of this morning's tragic accident at our factory in Arlington Heights. All our efforts will go into supporting them while simultaneously working and cooperating with public safety officials and investigators to ascertain exactly what happened and why."