Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Workplace Safety Enforcement: A Tale of Two Countries

Workplace safety enforcement in the United States is largely a cat and mouse game, with the mouse usually coming out on top. Although American companies are required to keep a log of injuries and illnesses suffered by their employees, they are not required to actually report incidents to OSHA unless three or more workers are hospitalized as a result of a single incident, or if a worker is killed. A single incident could theoretically injure dozens of workers, but if only two were hospitalized, OSHA may never hear of it. Even where workers are killed and the company cited, the citations start out relatively low, and often are negotiated down from there.

Take BP Amoco, for example. The giant oil company, where 15 workers were recently killed in a huge explosion, was fined $109,500 last month as a result of an accident that killed two Texas City workers when pressurized, superheated water was released from a 12-inch check valve. But the fine is clearly too much for the poor company that only made $285 billion in profit last year. They're appealing the citation. And why not? Last August, OSHA issued a press release boasting of a $63,000 fine for 14 serious violations of OSHA standards that resulted in a fire where no one was injured. Despite the statement from Charles Williams, OSHA Houston South area director, that "OSHA will not tolerate this disregard for worker protection," OSHA negotiated the fine down to $13,000.

Things are a bit better in Great Britain according to the Houston Chronicle: When a BP refinery in Grangemouth, Scotland had three incidents in 2000 that didn't injure any workers, British authorities leapt into action:
Authorities in the United Kingdom didn't wait for anyone to die in Scotland before taking action. The government filed criminal charges against BP after the accidents in 2000. Eventually a Scottish sheriff, equivalent to a U.S. judge, imposed a record fine for a noninjury industrial accident of £750,000 or about $1.4 million, based on current exchange rates.
But British unions are understandibly not satisfied:
Even the large fines imposed in Scotland were nothing more than flea bites to multinational petrochemical companies like BP, among the world's largest players in big oil, argued Pat Rafferty, a regional industrial organizer for the Transport and General Workers Union branch in Scotland that represents workers at BP's Scottish refinery.

"When you get a fine — for a company like BP that means nothing," Rafferty said. "The corporate image was damaged but not the corporate purse."

Rafferty said he would like to see more cooperation between refinery workers worldwide to try to counteract pressures on safety produced by rising prices and shrinking work forces.
The British labor movement has also been trying, unsuccessfully to pass a law that would allow Britain's Health and Safety Executive, to have the power to bring criminal manslaughter charges against plant managers whose actions result in worker deaths.