Companies fined $1.75M in worker death at Valero refinery

A contractor died at the Valero refinery in Benicia on Nov. 12, 2021. (KTVU FOX 2)

California workplace safety regulators fined a San Francisco Bay Area refinery and three contractor companies more than $1.75 million for safety violations in the death of a worker who suffocated while trying to clean a well, officials said Thursday.

California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health cited Valero Energy Corp.’s refinery in Benicia and contractors JT. Thorpe & Son, Inc., T.R.S.C. Inc. and Total Safety a combined $1.75 million for safety violations following the Nov. 12, 2021, death of Luis Gutierrez.

Messages seeking comment from the companies weren’t immediately returned.

The 35-year-old Gutierrez, an employee of the Richmond-based contractor JT Thorpe & Son, lost consciousness after descending into a regenerator overflow well at the refinery to evaluate the condition of the well interior and to perform cleaning operations in advance of a welding crew, the division, known as Cal/OSHA, said in a statement.

Inspectors determined that a welding torch left in the well was leaking argon, an odorless gas that displaced oxygen inside the confined space, the agency said.

Gutierrez was found suspended by fall protection equipment inside the regenerator. A refinery emergency rescue team got him out and emergency workers could not resuscitate him, the agency said.

"Working in confined spaces is extremely dangerous, as is working with argon," said Cal/OSHA Chief Jeff Killip. "The employers involved had a responsibility to keep their workers safe. The first step to preventing a completely avoidable fatality is to identify hazards before a worker enters a confined space."

In 2000, San Antonio-based Valero bought the refinery, which processes crude oil into gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel and asphalt.