By Francis Hamilton Rammazzocchi

For the second time in two months, America has witnessed a catastrophic industrial explosion involving multiple fatalities. On December 19, 2007, the small T2 Chemicals in Jacksonville, FL, detonated in a towering mushroom cloud, killing four workers. And earlier this week, the Imperial Sugar plant outside of Savannah, Georgia, exploded, killing at least 6 workers and probably more.

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

On January 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 reactive chemical 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,” but that OSHA’s Process Safety Management standard “has significant gaps in coverage of reactive hazards.” The Board therefore unanimously recommended that OSHA “Amend the Process Safety Management (PSM) Standard, 29 CFR 1910.119, to achieve more comprehensive control of reactive hazards that could have catastrophic consequences.” In case OSHA didn’t get the hint, a number of labor unions representing workers in industrial facilities that use reactive chemicals 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 CSB’s recommendation was issued, OSHA has refused to act. In typical Bush Administration fashion, instead of revising the PSM 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 CSB evaluated OSHA’s response and judged it “unacceptable,” and the Alliance was terminated in March 2007.

One week after the CSB’s preliminary report on the Jacksonville explosion, Representatives George Miller (D-CA), Chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor, and Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), Chair of the Workforce Protections Subcommittee (later joined by Jacksonville Congresswoman Corrine Brown (D)), sent a letter to OSHA suggesting that this incident might have been prevented had OSHA complied with the CSB’s recommendation. The legislators called on the agency to take “immediate steps to revise the Process Safety Management Standard to improve the control of reactive hazards as recommended by the Chemical Safety Board.”

In November 2006, following a series of fatal combustible dust explosions over the previous two years that resulted in 14 fatalities, the CSB issued a report that identified 281 combustible dust incidents between 1980 and 2005 that killed 119 workers and injured 718, and extensively damaged industrial facilities. Injuries or fatalities occurred in 71 percent of the incidents. Although OSHA had issued a highly effective standard addressing grain dust hazards over 20 years ago, and there was a well-recognized voluntary National Fire Protection Association standard, the Board found that there was no comprehensive OSHA dust standard. Again, the Board recommended that OSHA issue a standard to protect workers against catastrophic combustible dust explosions. OSHA issued a fact sheet and launched a targeted inspection program, but again failed to act on the CSB’s regulatory recommendation. In fact, beyond acknowledging receipt of the report, OSHA has not even responded to the CSB’s recommendations.

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 parts of their bodies.

The day after the explosion, Miller and Woolsey shot another letter off to OSHA demanding that the agency “take immediate steps to issue a standard to prevent combustible dust explosions, as recommended to your agency by the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) in November 2006.”

The media, meanwhile, has mostly been in its traditional “isn’t this terrible, shit happens, now lets 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.

Borenstein quoted former CSB Chair (and Bush appointee) Carolyn Merritt:

“This is an extremely dangerous component that is not regulated,” former safety board chairwoman Carolyn Merritt told The Associated Press Friday. Dust explosion situations “are so dangerous that people have got to pay attention to this. There should be an outcry.”

Merritt also focused in the root problem: the failure of this country’s only workplace safety enforcement agency to take the most basic measures to protect workers by issuing mandatory standards as Congress originally intended.

“There really isn’t a lot of excuse,” she said. “The question is why are they hesitant to write new regulations when it’s been proven – when our special study has shown – how serious it was and how many fatalities there were.”

Why indeed?

We’re hip deep in an election year, and unless I’ve somehow missed it, no one has asked any of the candidates, in any debate, what they will do to ensure that government agencies designed to protect people — whether OSHA, EPA, CPSC or whatever — will do the jobs that they were intended to do. Every time anyone breathes the word “OSHA regulation,” business associations warn that the sky is falling … and unfortunately, all too many legislators listen. Yet the fact is that at the very least, this country should have the laws that people think we already have. And despite all the news about the failures of government protections and stories of corporate foxes installed to watch the government chickencoops, most people still naively think that when it comes to clearly preventable threats to peoples’ health or safety, “there must be a law against that.”

Unfortunately, they’re all too often wrong.

Yet, the information that people — and politicians — need is there, and not just in blogs. 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 three million workers, but it has yet to require them.

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

What does the constitution mean by “ensure the general welfare?” Should the President be expected to enforce the laws passed by Congress and signed by previous presidents? Is it a problem that we’re about to complete two terms of a presidency without a single major new OSHA standard being issued (aside from court order or Congressional pressure). 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? And why isn’t there an outcry?

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.