WEST TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) — A leak has led to an explosion at a plant that turns coal into gas in western Indiana and authorities say two people have been killed.

Emergency crews have recovered the bodies of the two victims of the Monday morning blast in the city of West Terre Haute, Ind.

Plant manager Richard Payonk says the explosion at the SG Solutions coal gasification plant occurred when a metal fitting broke and released pressurized gas which ignited.

Payonk says operations at the plant near a Duke Energy power station have been halted because of the explosion.

This happened Monday. It’s not an unusual story. Workers get killed too often in this country.

On Tuesday, Democratic lawmakers called for tougher punishments for companies that do not follow safety standards and people end up injured or dead.

It’s about freakin time!!

The maximum penalty for a safety violation is $70,000 and the most an individual or individuals can get in prison is six months. That’s all the lives of workers are worth?

The Associated Press reported yesterday that a bunch of senators were calling for more than a slap on the wrist for employers.

“If you improperly import an exotic bird, you can go to jail for two years. If you deal in counterfeit money, you’re looking at 20 years,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. “But if you gamble with the lives of your employees and one of them is killed, you risk only six months in jail.”

There were 5,840 fatal work injuries in the U.S. in 2006 — a fatality rate of 4.0 per 100,000 employed workers — the most recent numbers available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. OSHA said that the fatality rate was the lowest since the BLS instituted its Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries in 1992.

OSHA officials argue that this is all about politics:

“Election-year political theater cannot mask the truth that under this administration, workplace illness, injury and fatality rates are the lowest in OSHA’s history,” said Edwin G. Foulke Jr., assistant secretary of labor for OSHA.

What Foulke fails to mention is that labor advocates have said OSHA’s policing of the workplace has also diminished under the Bush Administration.

From the New York Times last year:

That response reflects OSHA’s practices under the Bush administration, which vowed to limit new rules and roll back what it considered cumbersome regulations that imposed unnecessary costs on businesses and consumers. Across Washington, political appointees — often former officials of the industries they now oversee — have eased regulations or weakened enforcement of rules on issues like driving hours for truckers, logging in forests and corporate mergers.

Since George W. Bush became president, OSHA has issued the fewest significant standards in its history, public health experts say. It has imposed only one major safety rule. The only significant health standard it issued was ordered by a federal court.

I’ve written often in this blog about worker safety. Here are links to some past posts.

The only way to get employers watching out for their workers is making penalties more severe when they break the rules. Corporations and the people that run them are more often driven by the bottom line. That’s just the way it is. If we want to make worker safety a priority we can not count on individuals always doing the right thing. I’m old enough now to realize there have the be checks and balances, and that means making companies write bigger checks when they throw safety out the window.

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