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October 06, 2023

West Reading chocolate factory failed to evacuate workers before explosion despite gas leak warnings, OSHA says

The R.M. Palmer Company has been cited for 4 violations connected to the March 24 explosion that left 7 people dead and injured 11 others

Investigations OSHA
RM Palmer Explosion OSHA Street View/Google Maps

The R.M. Palmer Company was cited by OSHA for failing to evacuate workers ahead of an explosion that killed seven employees. Pictured above is 77 S. Second Ave. in West Reading, a building that was severely damaged in the March 24 blast.

The R.M. Palmer Company chocolate factory in West Reading failed to evacuate its workers prior to the explosion that killed seven employees – despite several reporting that they smelled natural gas, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

The March 23 explosion injured 11 others, destroyed a nearby building and severely damaged another. Citations issued by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration detail the findings of the federal investigation into the explosion.

Six of the people killed in the explosion — Amy Sandoe, 49, Domingo Cruz, 60, Susan Halvonik, 63, Michael Breedy, 62, Diana Cedeno, 44, and Judith Lopez-Moran, 55 — died from blast injuries. The other, Xiory Nunez, 30, died from thermal injuries, WFMZ reported. 

OSHA investigators cited R.M. Palmer for not marking its exits clearly, including near the door leading from the hot room to Cherry Street. The nearest exit with a visible sign was 100 feet away from the room, requiring employees to walk past the area where hazardous materials were stored. The chocolate factory was also cited for using flexible cords improperly and record-keeping violations. 

"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," said Kevin T. Chambers, OSHA area director in Harrisburg. "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." 

OSHA fined R.M. Palmer $44,483 for the violations, and gave it 15 days to comply or contest the citations. 

R.M. Palmer said in a statement that it plans to "vigorously contest OSHA's citations, which it believes are legally and factually unsupported," adding that it is unable to comment substantively on the findings because the company remains under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. 

In May, the NTSB released its preliminary report on its investigation into the deadly explosion, deeming it a "natural gas-fueled explosion and fire." The agency said multiple Palmer employees working in the building said they had smelled gas, while employees in an adjacent building said they had smelled rotten eggs. 

The NTSB released an update in July, stating the gas leaks connected to the explosion came from two nearby service lines that were installed outside of the facility in 1982 and 2021. A utility company "exposed and retired" the service line that had been installed in 1982 and replaced it with the new one, but the old one remained connected to the gas system despite investigators observing corrosion and a crack in the pipe's steam line.

A spokesperson for R.M. Palmer said that the NTSB report did not reference any gas leak inside of one of the chocolate factory buildings. Rather, natural gas was found to be leaking from a service line located "under a public road less than 2 feet from underground piping" that ran between two of R.M. Palmer's buildings, including the one that ultimately exploded. 

The family of Lopez-Moran filed a wrongful death lawsuit against R.M. Palmer in April, claiming the candy maker ignored warnings of a natural gas leak and bears responsibility for the deadly explosion. 

The lawsuit claims workers warned management about a natural gas odor on the day of the explosion and that the company "did nothing." The lawsuit argues that management should have evacuated workers after learning of the potential for a gas leak, but that the company instead "made a representation to the factory workers ... that the factory was safe and that there was no gas leak."

In a statement, R.M. Palmer noted it has "always put the safety of our employees and community first" and that it is "committed to providing a safe working environment." The lawsuit also named UBI Corp., the gas suppliers to the West Reading chocolate factory, as a defendant.  

In June, the U.S. Small Business Administration granted a disaster declaration for the small businesses impacted by the fatal explosion. Gov. Josh Shapiro's office wrote a letter to the SBA requesting loan assistance for at least five businesses impacted by the explosion, which destroyed a building on the first block of South Second Avenue. 

The SBA can provide up to $2 million in assistance to help impacted businesses meet obligations and operating expenses. The repayment plans are tailored to each borrower's financial capabilities.