Sustained Outrage

Did OSHA fail workers at Harrison Power Station?

In today’s Gazette, we followed up on the death on Sunday of Ned Johnson, a 63-year-old longtime employee of FirstEnergy’s Harrison Power Station near Clarksburg. Specifically, we examined the sad fact that this particular worksite had not been inspected by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration in more than a decade:

FirstEnergy’s Harrison Power Station is part of a labor department program meant to allow work sites with good safety records to avoid routine Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspections. The program has been criticized by congressional auditors and by workplace safety advocates.

OSHA, though, last inspected Allegheny Energy’s workplaces at the Harrison Power Station in July 2000. Inspectors cited two minor violations, and issued no fines.

Before that, the last inspection of the operation was following the death of a worker in an electrical accident in March 1994, according to OSHA records and Gazette news reports.

Two things are worth thinking about in the wake of this incident.

First, unlike federal mine safety laws, workplace safety laws OSHA operates under do not require periodic inspections of each and every American workplace. In fact, most workplaces in West Virginia and nationwide go for years without ever seeing a federal inspector. As we reported previously:

Business lobbyists like to make out like OSHA is a big, bad agency that shuts them down for all sorts of silly things. The Obama administration and its friends in the labor movement often try to spin it that this administration is doing a great job protecting workers.

But as the AFL-CIO noted in its most recent Death on the Job report, at its current rate, it would take OSHA more than 80 years to inspect every job site in West Virginia.

Remember that OSHA hadn’t inspected the AL Solutions plant in New Cumberland, W.Va., since July 2006 prior to the December 2010 explosion and fire that killed three workers.  Prior to the January 2010 phosgene leak that killed a worker at DuPont Co.’s Belle, W.Va., plant, OSHA hadn’t inspected that facility for nearly five years.

And second, the reason that OSHA hadn’t visited Willow Island for an inspection for so long is that agency officials put the facility into something called the Voluntary Protection Program, or VPP, which allows companies to avoid regular and programmed inspections if they convince OSHA they are good actors.

Celeste Monforton at The Pump Handle blog has written clearly about the flaws with this OSHA program — how agency officials really have no idea if it works or is a good use of government resources.

And more recently, the fine folks at the Center for Public Integrity have exposed the VPP program, writing of the workplaces OSHA allowed into the program:

Since 2000, at least 80 workers have died at these sites, and investigators found serious safety violations in at least 47 of these cases, records examined by the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News show.

Workers at plants billed as the nation’s safest have died in preventable explosions, chemical releases and crane accidents. They have been pulled into machinery or asphyxiated. Investigators, called in because of deaths, have uncovered underlying safety problems — failure to follow recognized safety practices, inadequate inspections and training, lack of proper protective gear, unguarded machinery, improper handling of hazardous chemicals.

Yet these companies have rarely faced heavy fines or expulsion from the program. In death cases in which OSHA found at least one violation, VPP companies ultimately paid an average of about $8,000 in fines. And at least 65 percent of sites where a worker has died since 2000 remain in VPP today.