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Federal prosecutors begin trial against Xcel for worker deaths

Traditionally, people think of head trauma as the cause of brain injuries. These types of injuries can significantly impact a worker's ability to perform their job functions. But sometimes brain damage can occur because of lack of oxygen or breathing in dangerous fumes such as carbon monoxide, which can even be fatal.

Five workers died at a hydroelectric plant in Colorado several years ago. And now in an exceptional undertaking, Federal prosecutors have begun a criminal trial against Colorado energy provider Xcel Energy and the Public Service Company of Colorado. The companies are on trial for workplace safety violations that could potentially cause workplace injury, violations that caused the five deaths.

Federal prosecutors filed five counts each of criminal violation of OSHA safety regulations against Xcel and Public Service. And though the action does not specifically include any members of Xcel or individual executives, the long-term effects on both organizations could be severe. Increased government supervision and hefty fines of up to a half-million dollars per company are among the post-trial possibilities.

The five workers had been working inside a large drain pipe at the plant applying a sealant when a fire started. The pipe was too steep for the workers to climb to escape the flames. Being unable to get out of the pipe, the five workers suffered carbon-monoxide poisoning generated by the fire and died as a result.

Xcel and the men's direct employer have both already been fined $1 million dollars each by OSHA as a result of safety lapses that contributed to the deaths.

Though rare in workplace safety cases, a grand jury determined that criminal charges should be preferred against Xcel and Public Service as well. Of the over 200,000 workplace death complaints processed by OSHA, only 151 have been given over to federal prosecutors. Most of those cases never went to trial.

Source: Denver Post online, "Xcel Energy trial in five deaths opens today," John Ingold, 31 May 2011

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