Bush’s OSHA looks the other way

For the second time in two months, America has witnessed a catastrophic industrial explosion involving multiple fatalities. On Dec. 19, 2007, the small T2 Laboratories in Jacksonville, Fla., detonated in a towering mushroom cloud, killing four workers.

Last week, the Imperial Sugar plant outside of Savannah, Ga., was ripped by a huge explosion and fire. So far, six bodies have been found and several workers are still missing. More than 60 were injured, several critically, with severe burns over large areas of their bodies.

Not only were both of these disasters preventable, but the factors that caused both explosions had been subjects of Chemical Safety Board regulatory recommendations to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), recommendations ignored by the agency — with tragic consequences.

On Jan. 3, 2008, the CSB issued a preliminary report on the T2 explosion, concluding that “preliminary findings indicate that the accident occurred as a result of a runaway chemical reaction during the production of a gasoline additive.”

Reactive hazards were nothing new. Following a number of deadly explosions resulting from runaway chemical reactions, the CSB issued a report on these hazards in 2002. The report identified 167 serious incidents in the United States involving uncontrolled chemical reactivity from January 1980 to June 2001. Forty-eight of the incidents resulted in a total of 108 fatalities.

The board found that “reactive incidents are a significant chemical safety problem,” and OSHA’s Process Safety Management standard “has significant gaps in coverage” of these hazards. The board unanimously recommended that OSHA amend the PSM “to achieve more comprehensive control.”

In case OSHA didn’t get the hint, a number of labor unions representing workers in industrial facilities had petitioned OSHA twice for a standard, and the Clinton administration was in the early stages of rulemaking before the Bush administration pulled the action off of OSHA’s regulatory agenda.

More than five years after the chemical board’s recommendation was issued, OSHA has refused to act. In typical Bush administration fashion, instead of revising the regulation, OSHA established an “Alliance” of chemical industry associations and published a reactive chemical webpage. The Alliance involved setting up booths at chemical industry conferences, occasional presentations about Alliance activities, and two actual training workshops that trained a total of 36 students. In 2004, the Chemical Safety Board evaluated OSHA’s response and judged it “unacceptable,” and the Alliance was terminated in March 2007.

The media, meanwhile, has mostly been in its traditional “isn’t this terrible, shit happens, now let’s move on” mode. The New York Times ran a long article focusing on the human cost of the Savannah catastrophe. It mentioned the CSB report, but failed to even mention the CSB’s recommendation to OSHA. The Washington Post, situated only seven blocks from the CSB and just 12 blocks from the Department of Labor, thought the explosion merited only three sentences in its “Nation in Brief” column, with no mention of either the CSB or OSHA. Only Seth Borenstein at The Associated Press picked up on OSHA’s warning and failure to act on dust hazards.

Every time anyone breathes the words “OSHA regulation,” business associations warn that the sky is falling and unfortunately, all too many legislators listen.

The same paper that wrote a heart-wrenching article about the Imperial Sugar disaster without even mentioning OSHA also carried an article last year that described how:

“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. The agency has killed dozens of existing and proposed regulations and delayed adopting others. For example, OSHA has repeatedly identified silica dust, which can cause lung cancer, and construction site noise as health hazards that warrant new safeguards for nearly 3 million workers, but it has yet to require them.”

The title of the article was “OSHA Leaves Worker Safety in Hands of Industry.”

Should corporate executives whose careers have been dedicated to fighting worker and consumer protections be named to head the very agencies dedicated to protecting people? Do “accidents just happen,” or are the souls lost in Jacksonville and Savannah the result of government malfeasance?

I’m just asking, but doesn’t it seem like these would be good topics of debate this election year?

Francis Hamilton Rammazzocchi has been working on occupational safety and health issues for many years. This is an abridged version of his article “Outcry,” published at The Pump Handle (thepumphandle.wordpress.com/2008/02/11/outcry/).