Sustained Outrage

Report: Workplace deaths are preventable

This Thursday, April 18, 2013 aerial photo shows the remains of a nursing home, left, apartment complex, center, and fertilizer plant, right, destroyed by an explosion in West, Texas.  There were no sprinklers. No firewalls. No water deluge systems. Safety inspections were rare at the fertilizer company in West, Texas, that exploded and killed at least 14 people this week.   (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez, file)

Despite getting far less media attention than the Boston Marathon bombing last week, the terrible explosion of a fertilizer facility in Texas has begun to prompt some strong reporting about the many gaps in our nation’s system to protect workers (not to mention folks who live near dangerous industries). For a few examples, check out here, here and here.

And now this morning, in advance of next week’s national Workers Memorial Day, we have the release of a report from the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, reminding us of this:

More than 4,600 workers were killed on the job in 2011 – the latest year for which we have complete data – spanning many ages, industries, and causes of death  …

The report, “Preventable Deaths: The Tragedy of Workplace Fatalities,” released today, pairs government data with heart-breaking stories about worker fatalities to portray the need for worker health and safety reforms.

Tom O’Connor, executive director of National COSH, said:

Each worker killed is a tragic loss to the community of family, friends and co-workers – and the worst part is, these deaths were largely preventable. Simply by following proven safety practices and complying with OSHA standards, many of these more than 4,600 deaths could have been avoided. But as companies decry regulations and emphasize profits over safety, workers pay the ultimate price.

A fire burns at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas after an explosion Wednesday April 17, 2013. (APMichael Ainsworth/The Dallas Morning News)

It was early this morning when the email message came over from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board:

A large investigation team from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) is deploying to the scene of a massive fire and explosion at the West Fertilizer Plant located in West, Texas, north of Waco.

Local emergency officials have told the CSB of a large number of injuries and destroyed buildings in the town.

The investigative team will be led CSB Western Regional Office Director Don Holmstrom and is scheduled to arrive in Texas Thursday afternoon.

Unfortunately, West Virginians have come to know the CSB well. Agency officials produced detailed investigative reports on the 2007 propane explosion that killed four people at the Little General Store in Ghent, the August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute, and the series of leaks at the DuPont Belle plant that left one worker dead in January 2010.

But as we reported a few months ago, the CSB dropped its investigation of the December 2010 explosion and fire that killed three workers at the AL Solutions plant up in New Cumberland, W.Va.:

As 2012 draws to a close, CSB officials are in the midst of their own probe of the April 2010 explosion and fire on a BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Among other ongoing cases, the CSB has launched a full investigation of the April fire at a Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, Calif., an incident that sent hundreds of area residents to hospitals. And like other government agencies, the CSB is facing the potential of serious budget and staffing cuts in coming years.

“It was in our minds a very serious and very tragic incident,” the board’s Horowitz said. “That’s why we sent a team out there. What has happened in our case as time unfolded, is just a plethora of competing priorities … all of which have huge pressures associated with them, and unfortunately for us, not a lot of resources to divvy up.”

And now, we have this important report from the Center for Public Integrity:

… Three years after Tesoro and Deepwater Horizon, both inquiries remain open – exemplars of a chemical board under attack for what critics call its sluggish investigative pace and short attention span. A former board member calls the agency “grossly mismanaged.”

The number of board accident reports, case studies and safety bulletins has fallen precipitously since 2006, an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity found. Thirteen board investigations – one more than five years old – are incomplete.

As members of Congress raise questions, the Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general is auditing the board’s investigative process.

“It is unacceptable that after three long years, the CSB has failed to complete its investigation of the tragic Tesoro refinery accident,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a written statement to the Center. “The families of the seven victims and the Anacortes community deserve better, and the CSB must be held accountable for this ridiculous delay.”

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More silence from Obama OSHA on combustible dust

Thirty-nine-year-old Jeffrey Scott Fish (left) and his brother, 38-year-old James Eugene Fish, were two of the three workers who died in a Dec. 9, 2010, fire at AL Solutions in New Cumberland, Hancock County.

Over the weekend, the second anniversary came and went of a terrible fire that claimed the lives of three workers at a small metals recycling plant at New Cumberland, in Hancock County, W.Va. We published a lengthy Sunday story that recounted the tragedy:

At about 1:30 p.m. on Dec. 9, 2010, Jeffrey Scott Fish, James Eugene Fish and Steven Swain were at work at AL Solutions, a small metals recycling plant along the Ohio River in New Cumberland.

Outside the Hancock County facility, witnesses heard a loud thud and metal hitting the floor. An explosion ripped through the building. Flames shot in all directions.

The two Fish brothers, 39 and 38 years old, died inside from heat and smoke inside the building. Swain, 27, made it out, but suffered burns over most of his body. He died four days later in a Pittsburgh hospital.

Work on this story started just before Thanksgiving, when I was really just trying to get an update on the planned release date for a U.S. Chemical Safety Board investigative report on the AL Solutions explosion and fire.   What I found out instead was that the CSB was basically planning top drop its work on the incident, and never release a public report of its investigation.

What it comes down to is that the CSB has investigated a lot of combustible dust tragedies already (see here, here and here, for example) and also issued a major report on the subject. Along with concerns about their small agency’s budget and staffing, the CSB just isn’t sure that they would learn that much more from completing work on the AL Solutions probe. As we reported:

“It fits into the broader problem with the lack of dust regulation in the United States,” said Daniel Horowitz, the board’s managing director. “I’m not sure how much impact one additional case has on that overall picture.”

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Regulations: What is Gov. Romney talking about?

Perhaps it’s become just an accepted notion that the Obama administration has brought the nation’s businesses to a halt with out-of-control regulation. Otherwise, why would GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney have said this in last night’s presidential debate:

Regulations have quadrupled. The rate of regulations quadrupled under this president.

The idea of over-regulation probably comes as a surprise to coal miners who are dying from black lung disease, or to factory workers worried about excessive amounts of explosive dust, or to kids facing dangerous conditions working on the nation’s farms. And in fact, the numbers Gov. Romney threw out don’t seem to be anywhere near accurate, at least according to reporting a few months ago by Politico:

So far, the number of Obama’s regulations trails those of his predecessors …

While the overall number of final Obama rules was slightly higher the year after the 2010 mid-terms, the number of economically significant rules — which have either a $100 million price tag or $100 million in public health benefits — dropped from 70 in 2010 to 55 last year, according to a search of the economically significant rules listed in the OMB database. This year, nearly a third of the big-ticket rules — eight of 25 — have been related to implementing the health care law.

The length of time regulations sat at OMB for review also has increased by more than three weeks since the 2010 elections, from an average of 45 days before to 67 days after.

And here’s how Obama’s 1,004 rules completed as of Tuesday compares overall with his predecessors: George W. Bush had completed 1,073 rules at the same point in office, Clinton 1,775, according to the OMB database.

Cass Sunstein, an Obama friend who had been running regulatory review at the White House Office of Management and Budget, bragged about the numbers:

Just the fact is we haven’t had as many as our predecessor. That’s suggestive that there’s been some discipline.

GOP tries to make it harder to protect workers

Fireman battle a fire at AL Solutions after an explosion rocked the plant Thursday, Dec. 9, 2010 in New Cumberland, W.Va. Three workers were killed and one person was injured, police and company officials said Thursday. (AP Photo/The Review, Michael D. McElwain)

That’s a photo of the AL Solutions plant in New Cumberland, W.Va., in December 2010, when three workers died in what the U.S. Chemical Safety Board has said was likely an ignition of combustible dust ( here, here, here and here).  It was one of hundreds of such incidents that have killed and injured hundreds of American workers, as Chris Hamby and the Center for Public Integrity have explained.

Those three AL Solutions workers — Jeffrey and James Fish and Steven Swain — were constituents of Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va. And over the last few days, Rep. McKinley has helped to ensure that federal workplace safety regulators are going to find it more difficult to protect workers from the dangers of combustible dust. As The Hill explained:

The House approved legislation Thursday afternoon that would prevent the Obama administration from imposing major new federal regulations for two years or until unemployment falls to 6 percent.

The bill would also prevent major new rules from being issued under President Obama between the November election and Inauguration Day — so-called “midnight regulations” — should Obama lose the election.

Members passed the Red Tape Reduction and Small Business Job Creation Act, H.R. 4078, in a 245-172 vote in which only 13 Democrats voted with Republicans.

And what exactly was Rep. McKinley’s involvement? See this part of the story:

Under the bill as presented on the floor, rules that are found to cost the economy $100 million or more would be prevented until unemployment falls.

But Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) proposed language lowering that threshold to $50 million, a change the House agreed to in a 240-178 vote.

Here’s Rep. McKinley explaining himself:

We have more than 23 million Americans underemployed or unemployed. This political maneuvering in rulemaking has to stop. The American people sent us here to improve the economy and help them get back to work, but not to allow the promulgation of more questionable, job-hindering regulations.

Rep. McKinley also voted against an amendment proposed by Rep. Miller to clear the way for rules to protect workers from combustible dust — if the Obama administration OSHA ever actually gets around to even proposing those rules. Miller’s amendment failed, even after the congressman argued for it this way:

The workers in this country have a right to rely on the law to protect them, not on some notion of this committee or of this Congress’ sense of compassion and of whether it will be invoked on that given day or not against the lobbying efforts by these industries.

It’s about the law that protects workers and their families–workers who get up and go to work every day, whose families hope they get to come home at night, but it doesn’t happen for a lot of workers. In these industries with combustible dust, it happens over and over and over again. They get killed on the job. I’ve been here a long time working on combustible dust. Let me tell you, the industry doesn’t say, Ah, gee, we’ve killed enough people. Let’s all just kind of hold hands and see if we can come up with something.

Believe it or not, this blog was perhaps the first media outlet to question an initial decision by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board not to investigate the BP oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. the CSB reversed itself and began a probe, and here’s the latest on that agency investigators found:

In preliminary findings to be released today at a public hearing in Houston, U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) investigators examining the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf report that companies like Transocean and BP, trade associations, and U.S. regulators largely judged the safety of offshore facilities by focusing on personal injury and fatality data (such as dropped objects and slips, trips, and falls), that overshadowed the use of leading indicators more focused on managing the potential for catastrophic accidents.

Expanded use of process safety indicators was first recommended by the CSB in its 2007 report on the March 2005 BP Texas City refinery disaster. In the offshore arena, potential indicators – such as timely checks on safety critical equipment and response to well control events – would provide an assessment of the health of their safety management systems. These type of indicators may be precursors to the kind of tragedy that took eleven lives on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig following the Macondo well blowout on April 20, 2010.

The preliminary findings were presented during the second day of a two-day hearing called by the CSB to examine the need for the U.S. offshore drilling and production industry – and the agencies that regulate it – to develop process safety indicators that will result in safety improvements and reduce the likelihood of major accidents.

CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said:

A number of past CSB investigations have found companies focusing on personal injury rates while virtually overlooking looming process safety issues – like the effectiveness of barriers against hazardous releases, automatic shutoff system failures, activation of pressure relief devices, and loss of containment of liquids and gases. Furthermore, we have found failures by companies to implement their own recommendations from previous accidents involving, for example, leaks of flammable materials.

There’s more coverage from the AP, Reuters and others.

Ferroalloys casting, Felman Production, WV USA

There was a fascinating new report out recently about media coverage of environmental and public health regulations, and how journalists are so quick to talk about how such rules kill jobs, often with little if any evidence to support such claims. The report, “Job Killers” in the News: Allegations without Verification” concluded:

— Media stories with the phrase ‘job killer’ spiked dramatically after Barack Obama was elected president, particularly after he took office. The number of stories with the phrase ‘job killer’ increased by 1,156 percent between the first three years of the George W. Bush administration and the first three years of the Obama administration.

— The majority of the sources of stories using the phrase ‘job killer’ were business spokespersons and Republican party officials.

— In 91.6 percent of the stories alleging that a government policy was or would be a ‘job killer,’ the media failed to cite any evidence for this claim or to quote an authoritative source with any evidence for this claim. With little or no fact checking of “job killer” claims, Americans have no way to know if there is any evidence for these claims.

Of course, this sort of “reporting” often doesn’t include specific use of the phrase “job killer,” but the results are the same. And we all know that West Virginia media outlets are partial to stories that would paint the Obama administration as a bunch of crazed environmentalists with no regard for jobs or the economic well-being of rural communities in our state.

We were reminded of this trend again here recently, when the Daily Mail published, “Plant steels itself against regulatory woes,” which warned readers:

As they get ready to celebrate 60 years of manufacturing, the current owners of the Felman Production steel alloy plant in Mason County wonder if federal regulations will keep them from staying open for 60 more.

The crux of the story is that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed new air pollution standards for these sort of metals plant, and the Daily Mail wants us to believe these rules might force the plant to close. But if you read the story closely, it’s really not clear that the company is claiming they would close. Nobody is quoted as saying that. The most the company seems to be saying is that a rule they see as too tough might stop them from expanding their Mason County operation:

Konrady said the company has invested nearly $80 million in the three-furnace plant since 2006 and is looking toward future investments.

“We’re considering maybe building another furnace,” he said. “The owners are willing to make a future investment because they see a future here with our company.

But there is concern the final regulations may be too stringent. That, he said, could dissuade the company’s investors from moving forward with the new furnace project.

“If it becomes too expensive to meet the new federal standards, the owners will likely take that investment elsewhere,” he said.

In fact, Felman officials seemed to have good things to say about EPA and their interactions with the agency:

Konrady said the company has had a good working relationship with the EPA. Company engineers have made several visits to agency headquarters in Research Park, N.C., to review data collected from Felman and Eramet.

Konrady said company managers are open to regulation; they just want to ensure the new standards aren’t too restrictive.

“We’ve been providing alternatives to manage visible emissions,” he said. “We have a responsibility to be environmentally responsible here. We’re saying, ‘Let’s look at all alternatives, and let’s use good science and data and come up with a good set of regulations.'”

But of course, that didn’t stop the Daily Mail from editorializing on this story, saying:

The United States faces this possibility because the EPA settled with the Sierra Club, which sued the agency to force it to act. Once again, an executive agency, not Congress, is designing industrial policy.

That should not be.

The EPA has delayed its decision on the regulations until September.

Here is hoping for reasonable regulations that trigger reinvestment, not disinvestment and joblessness.

Missing from the story, though, is any real detailed discussion of exactly what pollution the EPA rules are aimed at dealing with, what the costs of emissions reductions would be, and whether the potential health benefits of those reductions would outweigh the costs. The story couldn’t even get the right year for passage of the Clean Air Act Amendment that mandate these rules.

A quick Internet search would have turned up EPA’s Regulatory Impact Analysis for the rule, which reports:

For the ferroalloys proposal, the net benefits are $67 million to $170 million in 2015 at a 3% discount rate for the benefits and $59 million to $150 million in 2015 at a 7% discount rate for the benefits.

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Meeting set on Bayer chemical hazards report

This announcement just in from the National Academy of Sciences:

The National Academy of Sciences will hold a meeting on June 23 in Dunbar, W.Va., on its congressionally mandated report The Use and Storage of Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) at Bayer CropScience, which was released in May.  Several members of the committee that wrote the report — Elsa Reichmanis (chair), Paul Amyotte, Michael Elliott, and Michael Lindell — will present its findings and take questions from the audience. 

The report finds that Bayer CropScience sought to reduce risks associated with the manufacturing and storage of the toxic chemical MIC at its processing plant in Institute, W.Va.  However, the company did not make an effort to incorporate all possible hazard control methods, and not all chemical manufacturing plants have adopted safer processes that aim to minimize or eliminate hazards.  The committee recommended that the U.S. Chemical Safety Board or another entity develop a framework to help managers at chemical plants choose among alternative processing options — considering factors such as safety, environmental impact, and product yield — to develop a safer chemical manufacturing system.

The event will start at 9:30 a.m. EDT on Saturday, June 23, in Room 135 of the University Union at West Virginia State University.

See previous coverage of the NAS report here and here.

More silence on dust explosions from Obama OSHA

Once upon a time, then-Sen. Barack Obama thought protecting the nation’s workers from combustible dust explosions was pretty important, issuing a statement four years ago that said:

We must do everything we can to protect America’s workers and prevent terrible accidents, like the deadly explosion at Imperial Sugar earlier this year, that occur as a result of combustible dust. It’s long past time that OSHA issue a standard to prevent these kinds of accidents …

Now, as Obama’s fourth year as president of these United States stretches on, this is the best that the Center for Public Integrity’s Chris Hamby could get out of the U.S. Department of Labor about the status of Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards aimed at ending deadly dust explosions:

Top agency officials refused to explain the rule’s status. In a statement, OSHA said, “Prevention of worker injuries and fatalities from combustible dust remains a priority for the agency.” But, the statement said, developing the rule is “very complex,” and “could affect a wide variety of industries and workplace conditions. As a result it has been moved to long-term action to give the agency time to develop the analyses needed to support a cost-effective rule.”

Does anybody even know what all of that means?

Chris Sherburne seemed to. She lost her husband, Wiley, in a January 2011 dust explosion at the Hoeganaes Corp. metal powder plant 30 miles northeast of Nashville.  As Chris Hamby reported:

News of OSHA’s decision reached Chris Sherburne at the end of January, around the first anniversary of her husband’s death. “I just couldn’t believe it,” she said. “You put it on the back burner, and that’s where it’s going to stay.”

Her frustration is shared by victims’ families who have seen other health and safety rules similarly stalled, shelved or eviscerated. Whether it’s combustible wood dust at a sawmill, disease-inducing beryllium at an aluminum smelter or lung-wrecking silica at an iron foundry, OSHA allows workers to face conditions that many experts and even the government’s own scientists consider unsafe.

OSHA’s statement said it is “committed to protecting workers,” but that “numerous steps in the regulatory process mean OSHA cannot issue standards as quickly as it would like.”

That’s just part of what Hamby reports in Unchecked dust explosions kill, injure hundreds of workers, the latest in a new series of Center for Public Integrity reports called Hard Labor, about the kinds of workplace injuries, illnesses and deaths that too often don’t get enough media coverage. Hamby explains:

Since 1980, more than 450 accidents involving dust have killed nearly 130 workers and injured another 800-plus, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data compiled by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board. Both agencies, citing spotty reporting requirements, say these numbers are likely significant understatements.

Yet a push to issue a rule protecting workers from the danger has stalled in the face of bureaucratic hurdles, industry pushback and political calculations, the Center for Public Integrity found.

Read the whole thing here, and check out previous Sustained Outrage coverage of the combustible dust issue — including a dust explosion that killed three workers in New Cumberland, W.Va. — here, here, here and here.

Why American workers keep dying on the job

United States Steel Corp.’s Clairton Coke Works in Clairton, Pa. AP photo

Unfortunately, there is no lack of work available for journalists who think it’s important to expose all of the terrible ways in which American workers die on the job. This week brought us two incredible examples of the stories of our fellow citizens who die just because they got up in the morning and went to work.

First, the great Jim Morris at the Center for Public Integrity reports:

Early on the morning of Sept. 3, 2009, Nicholas Adrian Revetta left the Pittsburgh suburb of Pleasant Hills and drove 15 minutes to a job at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Plant, a soot-blackened industrial complex on the Monongahela River. He never returned home.

Stocky and stoic, Revetta was working that Thursday as a laborer for a U.S. Steel contractor at the same plant that employed his brother, for the same company that had employed his late father. Shortly before 11:30 a.m., gas leaking from a line in the plant’s Chemicals and Energy Division found an ignition source and exploded, propelling Revetta backward into a steel column and inflicting a fatal blow to his head. Thirty-two years old, he left behind a wife and two young children.

So what happened with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigated? Morris tells us:

In the Revetta case, the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration — OSHA — failed to issue even a minor citation to U.S. Steel, the world’s 12th-largest steelmaker and an economic leviathan in Western Pennsylvania. The company paid no fine, although current and former workers say that U.S. Steel’s contractors — including Revetta’s employer, Power Piping Co. — faced intense pressure to finish their work.

OSHA did look into Revetta’s death, as required by law. Michael Laughlin, a safety inspector from the agency’s Pittsburgh office, spent more than two months on the case, working tirelessly to find the cause of the explosion. Yet emails obtained by the Center for Public Integrity show that Laughlin’s requests for help went unanswered, and he was pulled off the investigation by a supervisor striving to meet inspection goals.

“My problem is at what point do we give up quality for quantity,” Laughlin wrote in an appeal to a higher-ranking OSHA official in Philadelphia in November 2009. “I need some guidance because I’m torn and my spirit is broken because of the need to complete this case to the best of my ability.”

The official advised Laughlin to “relax” and use the weekend to “go out and hit some [golf] balls!”

In the end, OSHA penalized only an insulation contractor that had been working in the area of the explosion. The contractor paid $10,763 in fines unrelated to the blast and was not implicated in Revetta’s death.

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