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WestRock facility in Covington, Virginia cited for workplace fatality

COVINGTON, Va. (From the Roanoke Times) -- A workplace fatality at the WestRock Co. facility in Covington was caused by the paper mill's failure to maintain equipment, state regulators have determined.

In citing the company for what it deemed a serious violation of occupational safety rules, the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry imposed a $7,000 fine.

A subcontractor employee was killed Oct. 6, 2016, when a manhole cover on a pressure vessel unexpectedly blew open and struck him, according to a report from the state agency's investigation.

Bolts used to keep the cover closed had been overtightened, stripping the threads and causing the circular metal door to become unfastened and "swing outward with deadly force" -- hitting Kent Duane Johnson as he sat on a footstep next to the pressure vessel, the report stated.

Johnson, a mechanical engineer who had traveled from his home in Minnesota to provide technical support for an upgrade project at the plant, died from blunt force trauma to his chest and neck, an autopsy determined at the time.

Stripped threads on other bolts in the area where the manhole cover gave way to high pressure "signaled a problem that was not addressed," the Department of Labor concluded. The manholes were opened and closed on a regular basis, and employees sometimes would use mallets on the bolts to secure them, the report stated.

WestRock was cited for failing to provide "a place of employment which was free from recognized hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees."

To prevent a similar incident in the future, the agency recommended that WestRock management create a program to regularly inspect the manholes and train employees on the proper way to tighten the bolts to keep them securely closed.

Those actions were taken in April, and the case was closed in May. It took more than a month for the state Department of Labor to release its report after a request was made through the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

Asked about the case on Monday, WestRock officials referred questions to their attorney in Richmond. Drew Gallalee said he could not comment because of a notice of potential legal action made by Johnson's family.

Johnson, 57, of Cushing, Minnesota, was self-employed and traveled across the county to do service engineering work at paper and pulp mills, often when the plants were closed for the night, friends have said.

The accident at WestRock happened at 3:15 a.m. in a Recovery Department building where two stainless steel pressure vessels, each one about 35 feet long, are used to process white liquor and lime mud under high pressure and 200-degree temperatures as part of the paper-making process.

Each vessel has eight manholes about 2 feet in diameter along its length to allow employees to monitor the process through glass panels, shutting the system down and making adjustments when needed.

Johnson was providing technical support on a retrofit of one of the vessels, which had been turned off, when the manhole cover on the second one, in operation about 15 feet away, gave way and struck him.

At the time, Johnson was working for Valmet, a subcontractor hired by WestRock for the upgrade project. The Department of Labor's investigation found no violations by Valmet.


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