Sustained Outrage

OSHA and DuPont: Belle plant seldom inspected

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Gazette photo by Chris Dorst

When federal workplace safety inspectors walked through the gates of DuPont Co.’s Belle, W.Va., chemical plant yesterday to begin investigating worker Carl “Dan” Fish’s death,  it was the first them they had set foot in the place in nearly five years.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration last inspected the Belle facility in March 2005.  That’s despite the fact that, as the federal Chemical Safety  Board pointed out:

The DuPont Belle complex is a large facility that is regulated under the EPA Risk Management Program and the OSHA Process Safety Management standard because of the volume and hazards of the materials it handles and the potential risk to workers and the community.

That March 2005 inspection prompted OSHA to cited DuPont for one violation of process safety management regulations, but federal officials settled that case without imposing any fine.

And if you dig a little deeper in OSHA’s online inspections database, you’ll find that prior to March 2005, the last time federal workplace safety and health inspectors went near the DuPont Belle plant was a decade earlier — in July 1995.

How could this happen? I’m glad you asked.

Take a look at this story I did a few years ago as part of the Gazette’s look back on the Willow Island disaster, which killed 51 workers in April 1978:

Two months after 51 construction workers plunged to their deaths at Willow Island, then-Assistant Labor Secretary Eula Bingham explained why her agency couldn’t have inspected the construction site more frequently.

At the time, 17 Occupational Safety and Health Administration officers were charged with overseeing 31,000 workplaces across West Virginia.

“Our area offices are constantly making very difficult choices in using inspection resources to respond to the most serious workplace problems,” Bingham told a June 1978 congressional hearing held just up the river from Willow Island at St. Marys. “Even if this agency were to double or triple its compliance resources, we could never regularly visit the five million workplaces throughout the nation.”

Today, staffing at OSHA’s West Virginia office in Charleston is nearly a third smaller than it was when the Willow Island scaffold came crashing down.

Twelve OSHA officers must cover the entire state, inspecting power plants, steel mills, logging operations and all other workplaces except coal mines.

Only nine of those 12 are full-time inspectors. The other three are team leaders, supervisors who help out on more complicated investigations, OSHA officials say.

It would take those nine OSHA inspectors an estimated 100 years to inspect each West Virginia workplace once, the AFL-CIO said in a report released last week.

Last year, the AFL-CIO issued an updated report on OSHA staffing. Things hadn’t improved:

It would take the OSHA office in Charleston nearly 100 years to inspect every workplace in the Mountain State.