The old adage that burning ears mean someone is talking behind one's back took on a new and painful meaning for one employee at Romic Environmental Technologies.
The employee received first and second-degree burns on his ears when a 55-gallon drum of flammable liquids burst into flames.
The Aug. 1 incident occurred at 8:15 a.m. when the drum the employee was handling ruptured. A mixture of flammable solvents ignited, according to an Aug. 3 report the company filed with the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC).
The incident occurred as Romic is winding down operations at the East Palo Alto plant.
Regulatory officials characterized the incident as minor, but opponents pointed to the accident as just one more example of why Romic must be shut down.
"We are extremely frustrated by this incident. Even in shut-down mode, Romic can't operate properly to protect the safety of their workers," said Alvaro Alvarez, an activist with Youth United for Community Action and Environmental Justice Group, which has opposed Romic's continued presence in the city.
Romic received an enforcement order on May 30 from DTSC to cease the majority of its operations in East Palo Alto. Toxic-materials-related injuries to employees and a June 5, 2006, accidental release of a hazardous cloud over part of the city and the Palo Alto Baylands were behind the state's decision, officials have said.
The order shut down 70 percent of operations at the facility, but was stayed after Romic appealed.
"DTSC is currently investigating this recent incident that occurred at Romic, as well as the chemical release occurring in June 2006 and the other employee burn incidents occurring in March 2006 and May 2004 at the East Palo Alto plant," spokeswoman Angela Blanchette said.
According to Romic, the steel drum contained a mixture of solvents, including acetone and isopropyl alcohol.
The worker's injury did not require overnight hospitalization, so it was not required to be reported, according to Kate McGuire, spokeswoman for the California Department of Industrial Relations Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal/OSHA).
The department inspected the facility, however; an investigation is ongoing, she said.
Romic ceased taking shipments of hazardous materials on Aug. 3 and has only been processing chemicals stored on site, company spokesman Chris Stampolis said.
"Since this is an OSHA-governed incident, I'll decline comment," Stampolis said of the Aug. 1 incident.
The company was sold to Clean Harbors Environmental Services, a Massachusetts-based hazardous-materials management firm, but Romic's East Palo Alto headquarters was not included in the sale.
Romic expects to finish operations before the end of the year, Stampolis said.
The East Palo Alto plant had nearly 100 employees. Sixty percent were offered jobs with Clean Harbors and a high percentage accepted, he said. He estimated that after additional job offers, 20 to 30 percent of those remaining will be laid off.