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Workplace Safety


ALL TALK, NO ACTION. “West stands as a testament to the consequences when our elected officials allow politics to cloud their judgment on public safety. The victims of this disaster are dealt a double blow when political feuding blocks their ability to recover damages and get the assistance they need. At some point, common sense and simple compassion must come into play.”

“When industry fails to police itself, people die and livelihoods get destroyed. That’s why it’s time to put politics aside and get to work on laws with teeth to minimize the possibility of another West in our lifetimes.”
Excerpted from: Editorial: Expert advice ignored on West, Dallas Morning News 7-1-13

You would think Texas would have learned its lesson from Galveston. “Texas’ environmental agency knew in 2006 that West Fertilizer Co. was handling 2,400 tons a year of potentially explosive ammonium nitrate in a warehouse near schools, houses and a nursing home, documents show.”

“Other agencies that knew about the dangerous stockpile also failed to pose such questions to their peers, records and interviews indicate. The explosion April 17 in the Central Texas town of West killed 14 people, including 10 volunteer firefighters, burned a school and destroyed or damaged buildings over a 35-block area.”

“There are no uniform federal rules for ammonium nitrate storage, and state rules vary. But fire safety experts have long expounded best practices such as structural fire protection, emergency drills, worker training and protective buffer zones between storage facilities and homes and schools.”

Excerpted from: Why didn't 2,400 tons of ammonium nitrate at West plant raise concerns? By RANDY LEE LOFTIS, Dallas Morning News 4-24-13

Dangerous limbo.  “If the West Fertilizer Co. plant had been in Illinois, state regulators there likely would have inspected it annually…”

“Many states simply have more eyes looking at such facilities than Texas, where no state agency regulates any aspect of ammonium nitrate safety, either to protect workers or the general public.”

“Texas is also one of only four states that lacks a statewide fire code and associated rules on storage of the chemical. Those rules are perhaps the strongest protection against unsafe handling of ammonium nitrate, which authorities have long known can blow up catastrophically under certain conditions.”

“Texas doesn’t just lack a statewide fire code: It prohibits smaller counties from adopting fire codes even if they want to. McLennan County is among those without a fire code, and the West Fertilizer plant, which straddles the city and county line, might have fallen into a regulatory limbo as a result.”

Excerpted from: Texas behind the curve on regulating fertilizer plants by Jeremy Schwartz, Austin American-Statesman May 18, 2013

Why? “A Texas fertilizer plant (West, Texas) that exploded, killing up to 15 people, was required by the state to have sprinklers and other safety mechanisms, but told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency it did not have such equipment.”

“The measures are required because the plant handles anhydrous ammonia, a flammable substance that can be used as a fertilizer.”

“But in a risk management plan the company filed with the EPA in 2011, officials said it did not have such systems.”

Excerpted from: Feds Told No Sprinklers In Texas Fertilizer Plant by Associated Press, KAKE 4-18-13

Riddled with hazards. “Like almost everything in the Texas, the construction industry in the Lone Star State is big. One in every 13 workers here is employed in the state's $54 billion-per-year construction industry.”

“...Years of illegal immigration have pushed wages down, and accidents and wage fraud are common. Of the nearly 1 million workers laboring in construction here, approximately half are undocumented.”

“…working Texas construction is a good way to die while not making a good living. More construction workers die in Texas than in any other state, the WDP-UT study finds. Within 2010, construction workers in the lightly regulated Lone Star State died at twice the rate as those in California."

“According to the study, 1 in every 5 Texas construction workers will require hospitalization because of injuries on the job. Texas is the only state in the nation without mandatory workers' compensation, meaning hospitals and taxpayers usually end up shouldering the cost when uncove red construction workers are hurt.”

Excerpted from: Construction Booming In Texas, But Many Workers Pay Dearly by Wade Goodwyn, NPR 4-10-13.

Déjà vu.  The safety board [U.S. Chemical Safety Board], once again investigating a disaster involving BP, released findings that bore a chilling similarity to earlier ones. Its preliminary findings from its investigation of the Deepwater Horizon blowout two years ago drew a direct line between that disaster and BP's Texas City refinery explosion in 2005.

In the Deepwater Horizon case, the safety board found that BP didn't take the lessons of Texas City offshore, and most of the industry and the government regulators for offshore drilling hadn't either. Although companies have made improvements since the rig explosion, they still aren't placing enough emphasis on averting disaster.

Excerpted from: Loren Steffy: Oil industry, BP still haven't learned from fatal mistakes, Houston Chronicle 7-25-12

Trucks, trucks and more trucks. “Over the past decade, more than 300 oil and gas workers… were killed in highway crashes, the largest cause of fatalities in the industry. Many of these deaths were due in part to oil field exemptions from highway safety rules that allow truckers to work longer hours than drivers in most other industries, according to safety and health experts.”

“This threat will grow substantially in coming years, safety advocates warn. According to federal officials, more than 200,000 new oil and gas wells will be drilled nationwide over the next decade. And the drilling technique used at more than 90 percent of these wells, known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, leads to far more trucks on the road — roughly 500 to 1,500 truck trips per well — than traditional drilling, partly because fracking requires millions of gallons of water per well.”  Excerpted from: Deadliest Danger Isn’t at the Rig but on the Road, by IAN URBINA, New York Times 5-14-12

Not medically necessary.  “While 22 other states have considered changes tightening their workers’ compensation programs in recent legislative sessions, it would be hard to find one that keeps legal fees as low, denials as high, and efforts of doctors and others to scam the system as plentiful as in Texas.”  Excerpted from: Insult to Injury: Texas Workers’ Comp System Denies, Delays Medical Help, by Terry Carter, ABA Journal Oct 2011

Don’t say I didn’t warn you. “A former official [Kevin Lacy] with BP’s drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico resigned just months before last year’s oil spill because of disagreements with the oil giant over its commitment to safety, according to a class-action federal lawsuit related to the spill.”

“[Lacy] reached a mutual agreement with the company to resign in December 2009 because he believed the company was not adequately committed to improving safety protocols in offshore drilling operations to the level of its industry peers.” Excerpted from: Lawsuit says BP official resigned over safety issues by JUAN A. LOZANO, Associated Press 2-15-11.

Run it, break it, fix it.  "A confidential survey of workers [commissioned by Transocean] on the Deepwater Horizon...before the oil rig exploded showed that many…were concerned about safety practices and feared reprisals if they reported mistakes or other problems.
…workers said that…they “often saw unsafe behaviors on the rig.”

"Some workers also voiced concerns about poor equipment reliability, “which they believed was as a result of drilling priorities taking precedence over planned maintenance …
“Run it, break it, fix it,” another worker said. “That’s how they work.”

"Only about half of the workers interviewed said they felt they could report actions leading to a potentially “risky” situation without reprisal."
“This fear was seen to be driven by decisions made in Houston…”

“The company is always using fear tactics,” another worker said. “All these games and your mind gets tired.”  Excerpted from: Workers on Doomed Rig Voiced Concern About Safety By IAN URBINA, New York Times 7-20-10

Please excuse our mess…“State auditors found muddled chains of command, incomplete or missing files and a massive backlog of cases when they dug into the enforcement process at the Division of Workers' Compensation…The audit is ongoing, but it supports the claims of former employees who exited the division this year amid complaints of stalled action on dozens of cases against physicians accused of abusing the system.”

“…hundreds of cases in which medical quality reviewers recommended doctors for sanction or removal from the system sit untouched, unsupervised or lost in a paperwork jungle. According to the audit, 81 cases were never logged, more than 20 percent of cases were closed without clear documentation, and 661 enforcement cases have been open for an average of 15 months without action. One case has been open since 2006, and more than 60 cases are assigned to staff members who were fired last year.”
Excerpted from: State Audit Finds Massive Backlog at Workers' Comp by Elise Hu, Texas Tribune 7-16-10

Doomed to repeat the past. “BP went on to invest more than $1 billion upgrading the Texas City refinery. Earlier this year, it said its recordable injury rate there had declined every year since 2005…”

“But OSHA, the federal overseer of workplace safety, tells a different story.”

“After a six-month inspection of the Texas City refinery last year, OSHA hit BP with an $87 million fine, the biggest in the agency's history. About $57 million of what OSHA describes as "failures to abate" hazards similar to those that caused the 2005 explosion, which killed 15 people.”

“The agency had inspected a refinery in Toledo, Ohio…in 2006, uncovering problems with pressure-relief valves. It ordered BP to fix the valves. Two years later, inspectors found BP had carried out requested repairs, but only on the specific valves OSHA had cited. The agency found exactly the same deficiency elsewhere in the refinery. OSHA ordered more fixes and imposed a $3 million fine."
Excerpted from: As CEO Hayward Remade BP, Safety, Cost Drives Clashed by GUY CHAZAN, BENOIT FAUCON and BEN CASSELMAN, WSJ 6-3010

A fairy tale:  Once upon a time a walrus, polar bear & penguin lived in the Gulf of Mexico…
“We would not have drilled the well the way they did,” said Rex W. Tillerson, chief executive of Exxon Mobil.”

“It certainly appears that not all the standards that we would recommend or that we would employ were in place,” said John S. Watson chairman of Chevron.”

“It’s not a well that we would have drilled in that mechanical setup,” said Marvin E. Odum, president of Shell.”

“After weaving for a bit, Mr. McKay [BP] said meekly: “We are sorry for everything the Gulf Coast is going through. We are sorry for that and for the spill.”

Although most of the Congressional fire was aimed at BP…the other executives came under criticism…particularly for the response plans that they prepared for a major spill in the gulf. The five companies submitted virtually identical plans to government regulators and to the committee. The 500-page document…refers to measures to protect walruses and gives a phone number for a marine biologist who died five years ago.
Excerpted from: Oil Executives Break Ranks in Testimony By JOHN M. BRODER, New York Times 6-16-10

Offshore fireball.  “Even before the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, government investigators had cited myriad potential safety violations involving fires aboard other offshore drilling rigs and platforms that resulted in more than 20 injuries and two deaths since 2007, records and statistics show.”

“Mark Tranfield, a consultant…who provides inspections and training for offshore companies worldwide, said he believes lax rules and less coordinated enforcement in the Gulf of Mexico create a more potentially dangerous…”

European countries established tougher safety rules and mandatory training…when the Piper Alfa production platform blew up in the North Sea, killing 167, Tranfield and others said.
“You have all these regulations in the rest of the world, and in the United States, there's nothing,” Tranfield said.”
Excerpted from: Many potential fire violations found offshore, By LISE OLSEN Houston Chronicle, 4-27-2010

Wrecking a dismal safety record.  "The blast happened on Monday afternoon…, killing 25 people."

"The cause of the explosion is still unknown but a build-up of methane gas, mixed with coal dust, is the likely culprit.

Massey Energy…has been fined hundreds of thousands of dollars this past year for repeated violations . They have been given 122 violations so far in 2010, 58 last month alone. The company's CEO Don Blankenship says, "this particular mine has had more violations than some of the others, but hasn't had a loss-time accident until these fatals this year." Excerpted from:  West Virginia Governor Maps Out Mine Rescue Mission, (ABC) 4-7-10

It's just a flesh wound...

"Workplace injury and illness data that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration collects from employers is inadequate, according to a Tuesday report by the Government Accountability Office."

"The GAO said some employers avoid reporting workplace injuries and illnesses to save money on workers compensation costs and out of fear of jeopardizing rewards based on having low injury and illness rates."

"...the report found that workers did not report job-related injuries because they feared being fired or did not want to let their co-workers down and risk losing rewards for maintaining safety."

"The report is available at" Excerpted from: OSHA workplace, illness data inadequate: GAO report by Jeff Casale, Business Insurance 11-17-09

Raw numbers. "Hispanic worker deaths increased from 533 in 1992 to 937 in 2007 - a 76% jump. In the same period, total fatalities in all jobs nationwide... The 2007 tally, the latest available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, followed a record 990 Hispanic deaths in 2006."

"Jose Omar Puerto, 19, from Honduras, was repairing a roof on an Austin apartment building in 2007 when his aluminum ladder became entangled in electrical wires. He was electrocuted and killed, his sister, Marta Puerto, said."

"His company paid for the funeral and the body's return to Honduras, she said. The family received no further compensation."
Excerpted from: Hispanic worker deaths up 76% since 1992, by Rick Jervis, USA TODAY, July 20, 2009

$12 an hour for every hour you survive. "A construction worker dies in Texas every 2 1/2 days. No other state in the country has as many construction-related deaths: 142 fatalities were reported in 2007...according to the U.S. Department of Labor's most recent statistics. The causes are far from mysterious: lax enforcement of labor and safety regulations, too many overtime hours without rest breaks and a lack of safety training and equipment.

"Despite its construction boom, Texas has the second lowest number of OSHA inspectors in the nation... According to a 2008 report by the AFL-CIO, Death on the Job, it would take the 77 OSHA inspectors in Texas 144 years to visit every workplace in the state at least once."
Excerpted from: Dying to Build - Why Texas is the deadliest state for construction workers by Melissa del Bosque, Texas Observer June 12-2009

Much ado about nothing. "A special government program to improve worker safety in hazardous industries rarely fulfilled its promise, a Labor Department audit concluded... over the past six years, dozens of deaths occurred at firms that should have been subjected to much tighter federal safety enforcement."

"The report was the first detailed appraisal of a highly touted Bush administration initiative that called for [OSHA] to devote attention and resources to improving safety at companies with a troubled history of job-related fatalities. The study found that officials failed to gather needed data, conducted uneven inspections and enforcement, and sometimes failed to discern repeat fatalities because records misspelled the companies' names or failed to notice when two subsidiaries with the same owner were involved."
Excerpted from: Initiative On Worker Safety Gets Poor Marks, Washington Post by R. Jeffrey Smith, Washington Post April 2, 2009

Not if, but when. " The federal judge overseeing BP's criminal case stemming from the deadly 2005 explosion at its Texas City refinery said Tuesday that whatever she decides on a pending plea deal won't guarantee safety at the plant."

"I can't make that plant safe," U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal..."

"...David Senko, who was in California at the time of the blast but was the supervisor of the 15 contractors who died, told Rosenthal that no dollar amount or penalty was large enough for the lax safety systems that led to the deaths of 15 and injuries of many more... "There will be another blast. Let's hope it won't have the same result as March 23, 2005." [he said]

"Three people have died at the refinery since the blast."
Excerpted from: BP judge says she can't 'make that plant safe by Kristen Hayes, Houston Chronicle 10-7-08

Tragedy of self-policing. "In a scene that has become all-too familiar, one of the nation's largest mobile cranes came crashing down at a Houston oil refinery...killing four workers. With an alarming number of crane-related deaths and crashes...serious questions have been raised about the safety of the nation's construction cranes."

"Texas is one of 35 states that does not require crane operators to be licensed. The [OSHA] requires cranes to undergo annual inspections, but it is up to crane owners in the state to police themselves."
Excerpted from: Houston Refinery Latest in String of Crane Collapses, ABC News Internet Ventures 7¬19-08