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Penalties for West, Texas, Explosion Show That Gambling With Workers’ Safety Is Unacceptable

Thursday, October 10, 2013
Press Contacts: 

Dorry Samuels Levine, (508) 277-7997, dorry.samuels@gmail.com

Tom O’Connor, (919) 428-6915, oconnorta@gmail.com

Penalties for West, Texas, Explosion Show That Gambling With Workers’ Safety Is Unacceptable

Statement of Tom O’Connor, Executive Director, National Council for Occupational Safety and Health

In issuing a strong fine against the parent company of the West, Texas, fertilizer storage facility whose April explosion killed 15 workers, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sends a message that neglecting worker safety – particularly around the handling of highly toxic chemicals – will not be tolerated. But the West incident also pointed to many direly needed reforms.

1) Though the $118,300 fine OSHA levied against the storage facility was significant, when compared to the value of the lives of workers who perished in the explosion, it is paltry. The Occupational Safety and Health Act – the law that created OSHA – must be amended to allow the agency to impose a fine greater than $7,000 for a serious safety violation. The agency must be able to issue fines that will truly act as a deterrent to unsafe working conditions.

2) As Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) noted when sharing the news of OSHA’s fine – which the agency could not deliver itself because its work has been stymied amidst the government shutdown – the agency tasked with protecting workers’ safety is “woefully understaffed.”

Because OSHA’s budget is so limited, its investigators can only inspect a workplace once every 131 years, on average. Thus, it was not surprising that OSHA had not inspected the fertilizer storage facility in West, Texas, since 1985. Had the agency had the resources to conduct more inspections, this entire disaster could have been prevented. Congress must allocate greater resources to the agency responsible for keeping millions of workers safe on the job.

3) The West, Texas, explosion highlighted the need for reforms in chemical safety, especially highly explosive substances like ammonium nitrate – 540,000 pounds of which were stored at the fertilizer facility. The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which Congress is working to update, should require companies using toxic substances to look into whether there are less hazardous substitutes available – and then to use them.

4) The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) was forced to halt its investigation of the West, Texas, explosion because of the government shutdown. The CSB does excellent reports and provides thoughtful recommendations about how to prevent similar incidents in the future, but the agency has no authority to enforce its recommendations. Congress should change the law that governs the CSB to grant it the enforcement ability necessary to protect workers from avoidable chemical catastrophes.

The West, Texas, explosion that killed 15 workers and injured more than 160 people was even more tragic because it could have been prevented. Congress must act to ensure that the lessons learned in the wake of the West disaster are implemented before further human life is sacrificed.

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The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health is a federation of local and statewide organizations; a private, non-profit coalition of labor unions, health and technical professionals, and others interested in promoting and advocating for worker health and safety.

To learn more about the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, visit: http://www.coshnetwork.org.