Review points to faulty cap in steam tunnel death at UNI

Firm did not review maintenance, employee training records

(File photo) A driver drives through the gateway of the University of Northern Iowa on Thursday, June 23, 2011, in Cedar Falls, Iowa. (SourceMedia Group News/Jim Slosiarek)
(File photo) A driver drives through the gateway of the University of Northern Iowa on Thursday, June 23, 2011, in Cedar Falls, Iowa. (SourceMedia Group News/Jim Slosiarek)

An independent review of an incident that killed a University of Northern Iowa steamfitter in September identified a faulty cap as the probable cause and reported UNI safety policies likely did not have an adverse impact.

But UNI did not provide HBK Engineering LLC, the national firm hired to review the incident, with maintenance records for the steam system as a whole. Although HBK found UNI safety protocols align with common practice, the firm did not review employee training records.

“No written startup procedures were available for the steam system for HBK to review,” according to the firm’s report. “No maintenance records for the steam system were provided to HBK for review.”

A cascade of events preceded the death of Kevin Bley – a 61-year-old steamfitter who’d been with UNI for more than a decade – including steam system modifications, heavy rains and damage, and failure of a cap on a two-inch pipe, according to an HBK report and Board of Regents documents.

According to an initial report of the fatal accident, UNI facilities services notified administrators of a major steam leak at 8:39 a.m. Sept. 10 in the Rialto Dining Facility. Bley was near the leak and died as a result, according to the initial report. No other workers were injured.           

UNI promptly hired HBK to review protocols, procedures, and facilities related to the incident. Upon testing in the steam tunnel at issue, HBK discovered the center portion of a cap on a two-inch pipe was missing.

“In HBK’s opinion, the sudden, catastrophic failure of this cap is the likely cause of the incident,” according to the firm’s report. “Such a failure would have allowed steam to immediately enter the utility tunnel and would likely have resulted in a loud noise, like the one a UNI worker reported hearing at the same time as the incident.”

Following the HBK review of the accident, UNI removed and replaced the faulty pipe cap. The campus also replaced a leaky valve.

HBK reviewed schematic and physical drawings of the steam system and “did not observe anything in the design of the steam system in the utility tunnel area that would be considered uncommon or atypical.”

UNI had recently replaced an expansion joint, and UNI staff reported the modification was deemed “acceptable by their engineering firm of record, Shive-Hattery.”

But the school didn’t provide HBK with design documents related to that modification.

Interim UNI spokesman Aaron Clingingsmith said the school is using the HBK report to “help guide our continuous process improvement efforts.”

“Our work is ongoing,” he said.

Before the incident, the UNI dining facility had been closed for maintenance since Sept. 4, when an initial steam leak was reported. On Sept. 5, UNI sent a letter to the Board of Regents seeking permission to institute emergency procedures to repair “damage caused by a ruptured steam line and activated sprinkler heads” following heavy rainfall Sept. 3.

State code allows its public universities to contract for construction without prior board approval “when a delay in undertaking a repair, restoration, or reconstruction of a public improvement might cause serious loss or injury.”

Board of Regents Executive Director Mark Braun approved UNI’s use of emergency procedures Sept. 5, and the full board on Friday formally approved the work. • Comments: (319) 339-3158;

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