Personal injury trial focuses on modified machine at ExxonMobil

David Yates Jun. 17, 2008, 12:17pm

When a conveyor began spilling polyetheline pellets onto the floor, workers at ExxonMobil came up with modifications to the machine that solved the problem. But within hours, a contract worker had parts of her fingers sliced off while using the altered equipment.

Whether ExxonMobil violated Occupational Safety and Health Organization regulations by failing to place a guard over the rotary blade is the question now in the minds of Jefferson County jurors, as the personal injury trial of Hall vs. Exxon Mobil began Tuesday, June 17. Judge Gary Sanderson, 60th Judicial District, is presiding over the case.

Vickie Hall was an employee of J.E. Merritt working as an independent contractor at ExxonMobil's Beaumont polyethylene plant on Nov. 3, 2005.

According to statements made in court, Hall was warned not to stick her hand anywhere near an unguarded rotary blade, but continued to sweep away polyethylene pellets pouring through the fan while simultaneously arguing with her boss. Hall's glove became caught in the blade, slicing off parts of three fingers.

Claiming her hand was caught in an "unsafe machine," Hall filed a negligence suit against the oil giant in June 2006.

In his opening remarks, defense attorney Greg Holloway, of the Houston law firm Tekell, Book, Matthews & Limmer, said ExxonMobil and J.E. Merritt had "brain-stormed" together to solve a problem on the pellet conveyor. The companies needed a way to stop the overflow of "good product" from spilling off the conveyor and falling to the ground, where it subsequently then became "bad product."

The result was an improvised machine designed to catch the overflow of polyethylene pellets and direct the product into a large tub. According to court documents and testimony, the excess pellets slide down a chute, proceed through a rotary blade and spill into the tub, where they are finally vacuumed up.

The "reclaim machine" had been online for less than one full work day when Hall was told the tub was overfilling and she needed to stop a possible back flow. At first, she attempted to vacuum the pellets out but was instructed by a supervisor not put her hands near the blade.

She was arguing with her boss when her hand got caught, said Holloway.

Holloway said that Hall's boss will testify that when he visited Hall in the hospital, she told him that "she knew better" and that it was her fault.

However Hall's attorney, Jeffrey Roebuck of Beaumont, said Hall was in a medicated state at the time of her boss' visit and didn't know what she was saying -- if she even made the remark at all.

The day after the incident, an aluminum guard was placed over the rotary blade, the result of an ExxonMobil safety meeting, said Roebuck.

"(ExxonMobil) didn't have a meeting the first time � to make (the reclaim machine) OSHA compliant," Roebuck told jurors. "They made a mistake � and designed it wrong."

Roebuck went on to say the reclaim system was a "cheap and easy fix" that sacrificed safety for profit, and that the machine was put into use without any safety policies, equipment or procedures in place to protect workers.

"The (reclaim) system was in place for one day and the first person to come into contact with it had her fingers chopped off," Roebuck said.

But Holloway said the reclaim system was clearly marked with yellow and red tape, signaling caution and danger, and that Hall had been put through extensive safety training to recognize the machine's hazards.

"(Hall) was a trained operator � who knew what she was doing � and knew what a rotary feeder was," Holloway said, adding that the machine's off switch was right in front of her face and she could have hit the switch before sticking her hand near a known hazard.

Following opening arguments, plaintiff's expert witness J. Sexton, a safety engineer with more than 30 years experience, testified that even the safest of people will eventually be injured by an unprotected condition, like unshielded spinning blades.

"No matter how you look at it, (a guard) is a good idea," Sexton said.

Sexton added that if ExxonMobil had complied with OSHA standards, the incident could have been prevented.

Hall, who claims there are not a lot of jobs out there for a maimed worker, is asking jurors to award her damages for past and future lost wages, plus money for her mental anguish and medical expenses.

Case No. B177-168

More News