(CNN) — An eastern Pennsylvania candy factory didn’t evacuate its employees – even as some said they smelled gas – before an explosion in March that left seven people dead and nearly a dozen others injured, the US Department of Labor announced.
R.M. Palmer, a Pennsylvania-based candy maker, was cited for failing to evacuate its workers during a natural gas leak, not having a clearly marked exit sign on one of its doors and for using spliced flexible cords at its West Reading manufacturing plant, according to a citation from the department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
“Seven workers will never return home because the R.M. Palmer Co. did not evacuate the facility after being told of a suspected gas leak,” OSHA Area Director Kevin T. Chambers said in a Thursday news release. “Ensuring the safety of a workplace is expected of employers and required by law. The company could have prevented this horrific tragedy by following required safety procedures.”
The explosion erupted shortly before 5 p.m. on March 24, leveling the R.M. Palmer Co. facility and stunning West Reading – a community of about 4,500 people that has been home to the chocolatier’s operation for more than six decades. The company is known for manufacturing seasonal chocolate novelties, like Easter chocolate bunnies.
Those killed were identified as Amy Sandoe, 49, of Ephrata; Domingo Cruz, 60, Reading; Xiorky D. Nunez, 30, of Reading; Susan H. Halvonik, 63, Upper Providence Township; Michael D Breedy, 62, Marion Township; Diana M. Cedeno, 44, of Reading; and Judith Lopez-Moran, 55, of Reading. Eleven others were hospitalized after the explosion.
After the blast, an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found natural gas had been leaking from a service tee, installed in 1982, with a crack at the top. Investigators also found a second, smaller leak in a new service line installed in 2021, the NTSB said in a July update.
R.M. Palmer said while it is still mourning the deaths of its employees who died in the explosion, the company “does not agree that it has violated any provision of OSHA’s workplace standards” and believes OSHA’s statement about the citations was “inflammatory, callous, and irresponsible,” it said in two statements to CNN.
The company added the July NTSB update does not explicitly say the two gas leaks were inside any R.M. Palmer buildings, as they were located under a public street.
“Until the NTSB’s investigation is complete, there is simply no basis to evaluate OSHA’s statement that an evacuation would have prevented the seven tragic deaths that occurred,” R.M. Palmer said.
The candy maker said it has already contested the proposed penalties and citations, which total $44,483.
R.M. Palmer, founded in 1948, employs about 850 people throughout North America.
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