Monday, June 13, 2005

Preventing Future Refinery Disasters: Real Sanctions or More Voluntary Alliances ?

As the dust literally settles over the site of the March 23 Texas City BP Amoco explosion that killed 15 workers, widely divergent ideas are emerging about how to prevent future incidents.

Some Texas Congressional representatives are considering doing something about closing the loophole that allows large companies to report only the deaths and injuries of their own employees without reporting the injuries and fatalities of contract workers on their site. As reported previously in Confined Space, OSHA only requires companies to report the injuries and fatalities of workers on their own payroll, not contract workers on someone else's direct payroll. In compiling industry injury and fatality statistics, the Bureau of Labor Statistics also doesn't count the deaths and injuries of contractors, raising serious questions about the accuracy of industry statistics. For example:
BP's official death rate at the Texas City plant looked the same the day after the explosion as it did the day before the explosion. That's because companies are required by OSHA only to keep logs of the employees on their payroll; employees of contractors working at the site go on logs of the employer of the contractor, which often aren't even in the same industry as the main employer.
This "loophole" has a direct impact on OSHA's ability to enforce the law because the agency uses these industry numbers to determine its inspection targeting priorities.

Texas Congressman Gene Green of Houston has introduced legislation that would require employers to compile injury and illness logs that include regular employees and contract workers. Green and other representatives is also interested in increasing the penalties for employers who willfully kill their employees:
Green and several other Texas members of Congress also said that they support increasing penalties for renegade employers whose willful disregard for workplace safety leads to deaths. Three bills expected to be considered this year would make such a crime a felony instead of a misdemeanor.

No Texas employers in the past decade have been prosecuted under federal workplace law for willful violations leading to workplace death.

In fact, there have been only about 30 prosecutions nationwide since 1995, according to U.S. Department of Justice data.

The effort to make safety statistics more accurate is supported by Democratic Reps. Lloyd Doggett of Austin; Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas; Al Green and Sheila Jackson Lee, both of Houston; Ruben Hinojosa of Mercedes; and by Michael McCaul, R-Austin.

Most supported increasing penalties for employers whose negligence leads to deaths.
"Animals have more protections under the Endangered Species Act than workers get from negligent employers," Johnson said.
Of course, there are certain Congressmen who aren't very interested in biting the hand that feeds them:

Others, like Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, said they wanted to see what happened with the BP investigation before taking legislative action.

Of 14 lawmakers who responded to Chronicle questions, only Ron Paul, R-Lake Jackson, whose district includes Texas City, opposed consideration of any bill to increase penalties for renegade employers.

"Constitutionally, workplace rules are a matter for state legislatures, which are much better situated to understand the realities of local industries and employers," Paul said through a spokesman.
Uh, actually Congressman, constitutionally speaking, when it passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act some thirty-five years ago, the U.S. Congress said that the federal government has authority over workplace rules, not state legislatures (unless the state has a federally approved state OSHA plan, which Texas does not.)

And for those readers not fluent in Congress-speak, the statement that state legislatures "are much better situated to understand the realities of local industries and employers," can be roughly translated as "state legislatures are much better situated to be influenced (and compensated) by local industries and employers" than the federal government, particularly in Texas.

Paul isn't too hot on forcing refineries to keep track of contractors either:

If we ask large facilities to keep track of non-employees (which could be numerous), we increase the regulatory burden on them.
Yeah, keeping that regulatory burden down is much more important than having an accurate picture of how safe our workplaces are or preventing the injury or death of "non-employees," which in this case are numerous.

And speaking of local industries and employers, the Texas chemical industry has decided that it doesn't need any stricter penalties or recordkeeping. After all, it's 2005 and we're living in Bush-World. And in Bush-World, all we need are more voluntary alliances to make workplaces safer.

Furthering the safety and health of chemical and refinery workers is the goal of a new alliance between the Houston area office of the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Texas Chemical Council (TCC) Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) Seminar Committee.

"Through this alliance, OSHA and members of the TCC will use forums, roundtable discussions, meetings and conferences to examine workplace safety and health issues in the chemical and refining industry," said Chuck Williams, OSHA area director at the Houston South area office. "We are hopeful that cooperation between TCC and OSHA will help to eliminate fatalities in the chemical and refinery industry."
So was it the lack of "forums, roundtable discussions, meetings and conferences" that cost 15 contractors at BP Amoco's Texas City refinery their lives? Or was it maybe that BP was using a system to vent flammable gasses that had been proven to be unsafe? And then there was the little matter of trailers being located in the blast zone, also known to be unsafe.

But, says OSHA and the TCC:

Alliances enable organizations committed to workplace safety and health to collaborate with OSHA. They provide opportunities to build trust, exchange information about best practices, and leverage resources to maximize worker safety.

Now it's no secret that I have a problem with OSHA alliances. Not that it's a bad thing to exchange information and leverage resources, nor is it bad for industries to "collaborate" with OSHA (as long as we don't mean "collaborate" in the WWII, occupied France sense.) But industries don't need a formal "alliance" to be "enabled" to work with OSHA. So, I ask myself, why do we need all the pomp and circumstance of forming Alliances? Window dressing? Smoke and mirrors? A magician's trick to divert the eye from what's really (not) happening?

And an interesting side note: This Alliance between OSHA and the TCC was not just a half-assed response to the death of 15 workers in the March 28th explosion. It had actually been in the works since February. Had the BP explosion not occurred, it would have been yet another of OSHA's many meaningless alliances, just another opportunity for a press release and a ceremony with lots of fancy pens and photographers. Ho hum.

But given the "event" that occurred between the conception and birth of this Alliance, wouldn't you think that the organizers might use the birth of this Alliance as bit more than yet another boring call for "forums, roundtable discussions, meetings and conferences?" Wouldn't this have been a good opportunity for the TCC to declare that this industry would no longer stand for practices that knowingly put workers at risk? Wouldn't it have been an opportune time for the TCC to join with OSHA to agree that the time had come for company and contractor injuries and fatalities to be reported so that Americans could finally learn the real safety conditions at our nation's refineries?


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