Thursday, January 15, 2004

"It's not our intention to create an unsafe workplace"

No one ever "intends" to kill one of their employees. When you've got a lot of employees and they're working with a bunch of dangerous chemicals and doing a lot of hazardous work, it's hard to keep track of it all.

Thats one of the reasons that there are laws and standards and enforcement mechanisms that force employers to pay attention to the health and safety of their employees -- basic things like educating employees about the chemicals they are working with and minimizing their exposure.

Here we have the case of Timothy Smith, a 22 year old man about to enter his senior year in aviation mechanics at LeTourneau University in Longview, Texas. Smith was working at Spencer Environmental (now called Thermo-Fluids) a Portland, Oregon company that recycles motor oil and antifreeze. On June 10, 2003, he was told to "rinse out a 15,000-gallon wastewater tank with a high-pressure washer and vacuum, something he was not routinely asked to do. That job is usually performed by waste oil technicians."
Several times during the cleaning process, the report said, Smith asked another technician about what was in the tank, and told the technician he was experiencing chest pains and a "heavy chest." He was not wearing a respirator, investigators found.

Smith returned to work the next day, but complained to a co-worker about chest tightness. On June 12, he went to the Willamette Falls Occupational Health clinic in Clackamas for a physical, which was required because of the company's pending change in ownership. Doctors there found his lungs appeared abnormal, and that he was coughing and unable to take deep breaths, the report said.

Smith returned to Spencer Environmental that day to fill out an incident report. Under the heading "What actions could have been taken to prevent this incident," Smith wrote: "Have proper personnel clean the tanks . . ."
Smith's lungs got progressively worse. He was hospitalized twice, and finally died on July 3.
According to Spencer's records, the tanks Smith cleaned that day routinely contain hydrofluoric acid, nitric acid, sulfuric acid, phosphoric acid and acetic acid. According to the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee Department of Environmental Health, Safety and Risk Management, hydrofluoric acid is one of the strongest and most corrosive acids known.


Three other Spencer workers were hospitalized in May with similar symptoms. An independent medical review by Oregon Health & Science University's Center for Research on Occupational and Environmental Toxicology found that test results and symptoms pointed to exposure to hydrofluoric acid in all three cases.
Oregon OSHA fined the company $32,000 contending
that Spencer employees were not properly instructed and supervised in the safe operation of machinery, and that the company "exercised inadequate supervision, thereby potentially exposing their employees to hazards."

Investigators also found that the company did not post danger signs on wastewater tanks, had no way to determine whether a respirator was required for cleaning wastewater tanks and had inadequately trained employees.
Smith's death was not the first for Spencer:
In October 1999, Thomas Cassell, 45, of Oregon City, died shortly after being pulled unconscious from a gasoline tank at a Spencer facility in The Dalles.

Spencer was cited and fined by Oregon OSHA for violating federal safety violations related to Cassell's death. Spencer has been cited and fined four times since 1994 for other safety violations in Oregon.
Spencer was fined just under $3,000 for killing Casell in a confined space.

Have they learned their lesson and accepted responsibility? Well,
Don Spencer, who remained with Thermo-Fluids, said the company would appeal seven violations and $32,500 in fines.

"It's not our intention to create an unsafe workplace," Spencer said.
... A sentiment that I'm sure is very comforting to Tim Smith's family.

And why, one might ask after reading the recent New York Times series about death in the workplace, why isn't Oregon OSHA referring this for criminal prosecution, especially since it's the second workplace fatality in less than four years.

Good question.

More here.