San Antonio-based oil refining giant Valero Energy Corp. and three contractors working at its San Francisco Bay-area refinery face combined fines totaling more than $1.75 million for multiple state safety violations—including a number of willful and serious infractions—which led to the confined space death last November of Luis Gutierrez, a 35-year-old union employee of one of the contractors.

Investigators from California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) issued the violations against Valero’s Benicia, Calif., refinery, where the incident occurred; industrial workplace safety consultant Total Safety of Houston; Texas; refractory contractor J.T. Thorpe & Son Inc., of Richmond, Calif.; and general contractor T.R.S.C. Inc., of Vallejo, Calif.

Cal/OSHA issued a range of citations against each of the companies, with three cited for “serious and willful” violations, the agency’s most severe infraction category. In addition to violations for conditions that contributed to the fatality, the companies were cited for failure to provide the rescue team with appropriate breathing apparatus and other safety equipment.

Total Safety received Cal/OSHA’s largest proposed penalty, $988,000, for a total of 17 violations. The Valero refinery was cited for $528,750 in penalties, while J.T. Thorpe & Son’s violations totaled $135,500 and those of T.R.S.C. totaled $101,125.

The agency determined that all four companies failed to follow confined space guidelines to safeguard Gutierrez, a J.T. Thorpe craft employee, who lost consciousness shortly after descending into a refinery regenerator overflow well to perform inspection and cleaning work in advance of scheduled welding activities.

Gutierrez, who a spokesperson for Laborers' union Local 1309 in Lakewood, Calif., confirmed as a member, was found inside the regenerator suspended by fall protection equipment and was brought to the surface where emergency workers were unable to resuscitate him.

According to a Cal/OSHA statement, inspectors discovered that a welding torch left in the well prior to Guterrez’s descent was leaking argon, an odorless gas that displaced oxygen inside the confined space. By failing to prevent his exposure to an oxygen-deficient atmosphere, the companies had failed to take “the first step to preventing a completely avoidable fatality … identify hazards before a worker enters a confined space,” said Cal/OSHA chief Jeff Killip in a statement.

Valero in 2000 bought the refinery, which processes crude oil into gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel and asphalt. A company website says the refinery produces 45% of the asphalt supply in northern California.

T.R.S.C. is currently considering its options in response to Cal/OSHA’s proposed fines, including an appeal of the citations, according to Thomas Song, the firm’s representative in the case.

Song added that T.R.S.C. is “prepared to defend against the citations as necessary,” and noted that Cal/OSHA’s investigation found no evidence that the company “acted in any willful or intentional manner regarding the alleged violations.”

Neither Valero, J.T. Thorpe nor Total Safety have yet responded to ENR requests for comment.

J.T. Thorpe was fined by Cal/OSHA nearly $70,000 related to a 2019 fatality at a Los Angeles area refinery owned by Torrance Refining Co., according to the public media report, which said the fine is still under appeal.