Saturday, April 22, 2006

Chemical Leak: Did It Happen or Did It Not? Does It Matter?

Is this what workplace safety has come to in this country? Prevention is out. Unless you actually kill, injure or sicken someone, it doesn't matter. Nor harm, no foul. Right?

Well, that's not the premise on which the Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed. You may recall paragraph 5(a)(1) of the OSHAct:
(a) Each employer --

(1) shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees;
In other words, the idea is not just to cite employers after they harm workers, but to set standards, and enforce those standards to ensure that such harm doesn't happen in the first place.

So the claim of Resurrection Health Care is rather curious concerning the alleged leak of the cancer-causing sterilant, ethylene oxide, at Chicago's St. Mary of Nazareth Hospital last month. An alarm sounded at the hospital on March 1, indicating a leak of ethylene oxide on a loading dock that reached the hospital ventilation system, sending three people to the emergency room. Hospital management did not call the Chicago Fire Department until the following morning, by which time at least 15 individuals had potentially been exposed to the chemical. The employees filed an OSHA complaint.

OSHA investigated and cited the hospital because:
  • Appropriate respirators were not selected nor provided to employees who had to respond to the alarm.
  • The emergency plan designed to respond to an ethylene oxide leak was not implemented, including notification of emergency personnel and evacuation of
  • The emergency plan did not provide for proper protection of employees.
  • Employees who worked with ethylene oxide were not provided adequate information and training.
Resurrection Health Care denied the leak ever happened and that the alarm had malfunctioned.
But as Ramsin Canon of AFSCME, the union that represents is trying to organize the workers, pointed out:
Whether or not the leak occurred is not the issue. "As the citations show, the hospital put its workers in jeopardy by not providing adequate safety equipment, an adequate emergency plan and by not responding immediately to the alarm.”
Indeed, OSHA has a rather comprehensive standard for ethylene oxide which employers are supposed to comply with in order to prevent exposure from occurring, not just after employees are exposed. In other words, in the unlikely event that OSHA had visited the hospital on a routine inspection independent of an alleged spill, they would still have cited the hospital for violating the standard.

Just one question. The article also reported that "None of the citations carried a fine or penalty, according to the OSHA documents."