Company Downplayed Risks, Plant Never Inspected by OSHA.
The fire and explosion at a fertilizer manufacturing plant that has killed at least five people and injured 160 more near Waco, Texas, are even more tragic because they were likely preventable, the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) said.
Though we do not know the exact cause of the explosion, we do know that the company downplayed the risks posed by the plant and that OSHA enforcement personnel have never inspected the facility.
Despite the fact that the plant had at least 50,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia onsite, the site’s operators told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and public safety officials that it posed no risk of fire or explosion. The worst-case scenario, company officials said, would entail a 10-minute release of ammonia gas that would kill or injure no one.
“Last night’s tragic explosion points to the need for stricter regulations of plants that store and use large quantities of hazardous chemicals,” said Tom O’Connor, executive director of National COSH. “We need a system in which facilities that are inherently dangerous are required to develop detailed disaster prevention plans before they’re allowed to operate.” Such plans can be modeled after the “Safety Case” model used by European regulators of refineries and other hazardous operations.
U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) records indicate that the agency has never inspected the plant, and despite the fact that fertilizer manufacturing plants are known to be inherently dangerous to workers and the community, the agency conducted only two planned inspections of these plants in the entire country in 2012. There are approximately 65 fertilizer manufacturing plants in the U.S.
Additionally, because of the enormous amount of anhydrous ammonia the plant had on site, under OSHA’s Process Safety Management standard, the manufacturers should have developed specific plans for preventing chemical accidents like this. However, reports have noted that compliance with this standard is spotty, and because OSHA never visited this site, it is unknown if the plant was in compliance with the standard. According to federal OSHA data, there are so few OSHA inspectors in Texas that it would take 98 years for OSHA to inspect each workplace in the state once.
This tragic explosion points to the need for more resources allocated to OSHA, the agency tasked with ensuring America’s workplaces are free from hazards. With adequate funding for more OSHA inspectors, more potentially dangerous sites – like this fertilizer manufacturing plant – can be inspected and hazards abated. More workers can make it home safely at the end of a shift.
The U.S. does have a federal agency – the Chemical Safety Board – that does an excellent job of determining why a plant explosion has occurred after the fact. Unfortunately, the agency does not have the authority to enforce its recommendations in order to prevent these tragedies in the future.
“We continually hear these days from corporate lobbyists and Republicans in Washington alike that regulations are killing jobs, but we saw last night that the lack of adequate regulations can also kill workers and community members,” O’Connor said. “If the anti-regulatory sentiment currently plaguing Congress and much of Washington, D.C., continues, disasters like last night’s explosion will continue to happen.”
National COSH and workplace safety advocates will honor the workers killed at the fertilizer manufacturing plant, as well as the thousands of other workers killed on the job across the country, next week as part of Workers’ Memorial Week of Action. For more information about Workers’ Memorial Day, as well as events and reports happening throughout the week, visit www.workersmemorialweek.org.