blast.jpgUPDATE BELOW –

Is our government turning a blind eye to worker injuries, and even death?

I know you’ve all heard a bit about the deadly sugar plant explosion in Georgia. Maybe you caught a bit of the story on the nightly news. Yet another accident kills workers. We let these stories just disappear into the next day’s news. Remember the mine workers in Utah? Probably not.

I don’t blame you. We get bombarded with news everyday. We all hope someone investigates these tragedies. We all hope someone, or some agency, or some corporations is held accountable. The sugar refinery tragedy was heart wrenching.

From the Associated Press:

SAVANNAH, Ga.—A vase of red roses sat in front of the church altar Saturday, flanked by portraits of Truitt Byers and a blue baseball cap with the logo for Dixie Crystals—the brand of sugar produced by a refinery where the 54-year-old was killed in an explosion.

The first memorial services for Byers and the other victims came a day after crews recovered the final body from inside the Imperial Sugar refinery in Port Wentworth west of Savannah. The explosion killed nine people Feb. 7—eight found dead inside the plant, and a ninth worker who died of burns at an Augusta hospital.

The major question is: Could these accidents have been prevented? In this case, the answer might be yes.

Independent federal safety officials in 2006 had urged the government’s main arm protecting worker safety, OSHA, to adopt new standards to protect workers against deadly dust explosions, like the one at the Imperial Sugar facility in Georgia.

But, unfortunately, those new regulations were not adopted. The federal group that urged OSHA to adopt those standards is called the Chemical Safety Board. The Board had been concerned about similar explosions caused by dust at other facilities and in 2003 investigated three horrific cases.

This from the Board’s website discussing the three incidents:

One at West Pharmaceutical Services in Kinston, North Carolina, where plastic powder that had accumulated above a suspended ceiling exploded, killed six and gravely injured many others. At CTA Acoustics in Corbin, Kentucky, phenolic resin - another plastic powder - exploded killing 7 and again injuring many others. And at the Hayes-Lemmerz automobile wheel plant in Indiana, aluminum powder exploded killing another worker. That plant has since closed. Both the other plants had to be demolished and rebuilt.

After investigating the explosions and after undertaking a large study into industrial dust explosions,

“The Board identified 281 fires and explosions over a 25-year period that took 119 lives and caused 718 injuries. Some 24% of these incidents took place in the food industry. Pursuant to its findings the Board made several recommendations - including recommendations to OSHA - which OSHA has so far partly acted on. But the tragic event that occurred here in Savannah demonstrates that the problem of dust explosions in industry has yet to be solved. It is a problem that requires further attention.

So what happened? What does “OSHA has so far partly acted on” mean? I left a message for the press person at the Chemical Safety Board to explain exactly what that meant.[See the note from a CSB spokesman in the comments.]

Is OSHA doing a good enough job protecting workers from injury?A story in the News & Observer published Feb. 10 worries me. Did anyone see this?

OSHA lets employers underreport workers’ injuries, official says

Kerry Hall and Ames Alexander, The Charlotte Observer

Bob Whitmore is doing what few career government employees dare — publicly criticizing his own agency.

Whitmore, chief of record-keeping requirements for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said OSHA is allowing employers to vastly underreport the number of injuries and illnesses their workers suffer. The true rate for some industries — including poultry processors — is likely two to three times what government numbers suggest, he said. Whitmore is not authorized to speak for the government and is risking his job simply by talking to the Charlotte Observer, he said.

“I want to hold people accountable that are abusing workers,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.” OSHA officials say they look for underreporting but rarely find it. Whitmore has directed OSHA’s record-keeping system since 1988. Early in his career, he said, OSHA looked closely at companies’ injury and illness logs and issued big fines to businesses that underreported such incidents. But by the 1990s, he said, industry groups and pro-business lawmakers were accusing OSHA of focusing on what they perceived as frivolous paperwork violations.

Today, he said, the agency is conducting fewer inspections and issuing fewer fines, leaving businesses to police themselves. The government, he said, has no clear picture of the hazards that lurk inside some of America’s most dangerous manufacturers. A leading manufacturers group disagrees, contending that the government figures are accurate. While underreporting occasionally happens, it’s rare, Hank Cox, a spokesman for the National Association of Manufacturers, contends.

In July, Whitmore was placed on administrative leave after a confrontation with a supervisor. He said the supervisor spat on him, so he stuck his foot in the man’s door and threatened, “If you ever do that again, I’ll kick your [rear].” Whitmore has filed a complaint alleging a hostile workplace. As of this month, he was still on administrative leave. The Labor Department declined to comment on Whitmore’s status, citing “privacy considerations.”

Supposedly, OSHA’s budget has not kept pace with inflation in the past few years. Has that led to worker deaths? I don’t know. But we need to review how safety regulations are implemented in this country. Whenever there is even one death, we all should sit up and wonder why.

[UPDATE: From a union representing sugar industry workers at other facilities:

Washington, D.C. - Leading worker organizations today called on the
U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health
Administration (OSHA) to issue an emergency standard on combustible
dust. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW)
and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters filed a petition with the
U.S. Department of Labor demanding that OSHA follow the 2006
recommendations of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB). Additional
labor organizations representing workers at risk are also supporting the
petition which was filed in reaction to a workplace explosion at a sugar
refinery in Georgia on February 7.

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