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Updated 4/5/10 at 12:24 pm (see postscript)

I’ve been following the news coverage of the catastrophe at the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Washington (here, here, here, here).   Mr. Daniel Aldridge, 50, Mr. Darrin J Hoines, 43, Ms. Donna Van Dreumel, 36, Mr. Matt Bowen, and Ms. Kathryn Powell 29, died from their injuries, and Mr. Lew Janz, 41, and Mr. Matt Gumbel, 34, are in critical condition at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

I couldn’t help but notice the references in several of the stories to OSHA’s National Emphasis Program on Petroleum Refinery Process Safety Management (CPL 03-00-10, reissued Aug 18 2009.*)  As long as I can remember, federal OSHA has labeled these special targeted enforcement activities “National Emphasis Programs,” when they aren’t national at all. 

First, federal OSHA only has authority to conduct inspections in 29 of the 50 States.  The others run their own state-based OH&S regulatory and enforcement apparatus.  For this particular NEP, as for nearly all of them, OSHA tells the state-plan agencies:

“Participation in this national emphasis program…is strongly encouraged, but is not required.”  (OSHA directive, August 2009, see p.4)

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by the spirit of Tony Mazzocchi

The Washington Department of Labor and Industries, Division of Occupational Safety & Health (DOSH) inspected the Tesoro Anacortes refinery in 2008 and found major safety problems.  In a settlement agreement, however, the agency “deleted” 14 of 17 serious citations and lowered the penalty from $85,700 to $12,250.   A massive explosion rocked the refinery on April 2nd, killing five workers and critically injured two others.  The serious citations should have served as a warning of systemic problems at the refinery, but Tesoro and Washington State DOSH apparently did not take needed actions to prevent the catastrophic incident last week. 

The agency has a history of negotiating away citations in refinery disasters.  In 1998, a fire at the nearby Equilon refinery killed six.  The agency dropped willful violations and issued two “unclassified” citations.  The settlement was reported to have been proposed by the Equilon’s lawyers, McDermott, Will and Emery.   This situation should compel us to ask:

  • Do settlement agreements that drop or reduce citations benefit worker safety in the long run?  Or
  • Do they serve to reduce legal liability for corporations while allowing OSHA to more easily close-out inspections? 

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On the heels of Ben Elgin’s Business Week story yesterday about employers failing to comply with rules for reporting worker injuries, it appears large public sector employers have trouble obeying the law as well.  The LA Times is reporting that the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) failed to report to Cal-OSHA a serious burn injury that required a paid graduate research assistant to spend a week in the UCLA Medical Center’s burn unit.   (Under Cal-OSHA regulations, an employer must report to the agency within 8 hours any worker death or any worker injury requiring more than 24 hours of hospitalization.  Federal OSHA, in contrast, only requires injury reporting if 3 or more workers are hospitalized.)

In “Serious lab incident was not reported,” the LATimes journalist Kim Christensen, ties this revelation to the fatal injuries sustained by UCLA graduate research assistant Shari Sangji, 23.  Ms. Sangji died 18 days after suffering serious burns and injuries from a December 2008 explosion in a UCLA chemistry lab. 

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by Ken Ward Jr., cross-posted from Coal Tattoo

After she visited Patriot Coal’s Federal No. 2 Mine in Monongalia County, W.Va., last year, Obama Labor Secretary Hilda Solis couldn’t say enough about the operation, its great labor-management relations and its model safety record.  Solis (or one of her aides) wrote a nearly 600-word newspaper commentary in which the secretary concluded she was “in awe” of the mine:

It was evident that management and labor can work together to ensure that workers are safe, earn a good wage, and can be proud that their work is contributing to meeting our nation’s diverse energy needs. It also reinforced my commitment to ensure that all American workers have the right to be safe and secure on the job and they return home to their family every night.

But now that Federal No. 2 is the subject of a broad criminal investigation targeting management officials who allegedly falsified safety records, Secretary Solis doesn’t have quite so much to say.

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by revere, cross-posted from Effect Measure

The National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) has been conducted since 1957 and is one of the main instruments to get a glimpse at the health of the US population. The NHIS is a “multistage area probability design,” or what many call cluster sampling. The idea is to first sample geographic areas in all 50 sates and the District of Columbia, where the area might be a county, a small adjoining group of counties in sparsely populated places or a metropolitan area where population is dense. The list of areas to be sampled has about 1900 entries and 428 are drawn at random, although all states are sampled. So that’s the first stage. Within these primary sampling units subsamples of either 8, 12 or 16 addresses are then drawn or a sample of 4 housing units built after the year 2000. The sample isn’t a straight random sample of the population as Blacks, Hispanics and Asians are oversampled via a screening procedure or by including areas known by the previous census to have higher numbers of these demographic groups. You can read more details at the NHIS site. Interviewing of sampled households goes on throughout the year to get a representative sample of adult, non-institutionalized resident of the US. Participation is voluntary, but response rates exceed 90%, which is pretty amazing.

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MSHA’s Assistant Secretary Joe Main announced at public events last week in Austin, TX and Charleston, WV his “Rules to Live By” campaign.  It’s described as  

“a new outreach and enforcement program designed to strengthen efforts to prevent mining fatalities.”

MSHA says the program will focus on the dozen or so frequently-cited safety standards identified during investigations of 589 fatal-injury incidents (2000-2008) in coal, metal and aggregate mines.   The list is no surprise.  It refers to hazards that have killed mine workers (and other workers for that matter) for decades: energized machinery, falls from elevations, struck by mobile equipment, etc., etc.  The MSHA asst. secretary explained the objective of the program as:

“having mine operators identify and correct all hazardous conditions and to have MSHA enforcement be directed toward confirming that violations related to these conditions are not present at mines.”

Wait a minute.  Isn’t this what we already expect?  

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by revere, cross-posted from Effect Measure

Being over 65 I’m an older adult, according to the author’s definition (as reported in the press release, at least), and like everyone else I frequently take elevators. Maybe not as frequently as some. My office is on the 4th floor and I almost always take the stairs, but in taller buildings I take elevators. My rule for the parking garage (top floor is 7) is that I always walk down but I take the elevator up if I’m above the 4th floor on the way back to may car at the end of the day. It’s not a health or exercise issue. I’m too impatient to wait for the elevator. Type A all the way. Enough about me. Back to the elevator and my geezer age group:

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by revere, cross-posted from Effect Measure

Most people feel safe at home, but statistically it’s not the safest place to be, at least in terms of being injured (here injury includes not only trauma but poisoning, but if we restrict it to trauma probably little is changed). Here’s one of CDC’s “Quickstat” looks at the percentage distribution of injuries by place of occurrence, as reported in a cluster sample of the US population (the National Health Interview Survey). The years covered are 2004 to 2007:

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I’ve been following the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward’s coverage of the death of Carl “Danny” Fish, 58 from exposure to phosgene on Jan 24 while working at the DuPont Corp’s plant in Belle, WV.  (Mr. Fish’s photo and obituary)  Ward’s reporting started with DuPont downplaying the incident, then a confirmation by the company of the worker’s  death (here), followed by the US Chemical Safety Board’s (CSB) decision to investigate the incident (here), and DuPont’s “safety pause” at the plant (here).   Within a day, it was a preliminary report from CSB investigators that the phosgene-containing hose was worn and frayed (here), and then the US EPA’s announcement that they are launching an investigation of the recent chemical releases (here).   

Based on Ward’s reporting and the brief statement from the CSB, there’s been a history of near misses at the Belle plant, including releases of chloromethane, phosphoric acid, and sulphur trioxide.  In Ward’s “OSHA and DuPont: Belle plant seldom inspected,” he noted it was the first time in nearly five years that federal safety inspectors* had set foot in the plant.  Prior to that, OSHA visited the plant in 1995.  OSHA provided an official response to Ward, explaining:

“They have not been inspected since 2005 because we have not received a formal complaint or referral, there have been no fatalities and their injury and illness rate is low enough so that they are not on our Site Specific Targeting list.”

That response is unsatisfying.

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Updated below (1/15/2010)

“Is the state agency charged with enforcing job safety failing to do its job?”

is the question posed by KCET’s (Los Angeles) SoCal Connected in a special investigation airing on Thursday, January 14.   The full program will be posted on the station’s website following the broadcast.  Click here for a sneak preview.  I suspect the progam will resurrect questions about the effectiveness of federal OSHA’s oversight of the OSHA State Plans.  These State-run programs provide H&S protection to 40% of the nation’s workforce. 

During last October’s congressional hearing about the Nevada OSHA program, acting OSHA chief Jordan Barab testified that federal OSHA would:

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