Workplace accidents, fatalities lead experts to question regulatory status quo

An aerial view shows investigators walking through the aftermath of the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas. (Photo: Adrees Latif, Reuters)
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Brooks Hays

Governor Rick Perry, speaking to mourners following a deadly blast at a West, Texas, fertilizer plant in April, promised that he would never forget what happened. But accidents and fatalities have long plagued the country’s heavy industry, with thousands of Americans killed each year and many others injured in chemical plants and oil refineries, on fishing rigs, at construction sites and elsewhere.

A total of 4,693 Americans were killed on the job in all industries in 2011, the latest year for which figures are available, more than the 4,484 American military personnel killed in Iraq since the 2003 invasion.

Experts say the situation is unlikely to improve without a fundamental overhaul of a regulatory approach that relies on industry self-reporting and infrequent and paltry penalties.

“We’re becoming accustomed to these horrific accidents," says Michael Wilson, director of University of California, Berkeley's Labor Occupational Health Program. "They're being accepted as a cost of doing business."

Last summer in Richmond, California, 15,000 residents sought medical attention for burning eyes and breathing problems after a corroded pipe ruptured at a nearby Chevron oil refinery, releasing a fiery vapor cloud into the atmosphere. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB), the agency tasked with investigating major industrial accidents, says the company could have prevented the accident if it had not taken a Band-Aid approach to plant maintenance.  According to the CSB, Chevron opted in most cases to repair — instead of replace — aging equipment.

"The regulatory regime in which the refinery worked allowed this to happen," CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso told reporters upon the release of the agency’s interim report earlier this year.

Many media outlets have been quick to point out that the same regulatory regime, with the same regulatory holes, was in place at the West Fertilizer Co. in Texas. "From Washington to West, little coordination or communication took place,” environmental reporter Randy Lee Loftis wrote in the Dallas Morning News last week. “At every stage, elements of the system missed opportunities to inspect, audit or even talk." 

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the Department of Homeland Security, as well as relevant state agencies in Texas, have maintained that they followed appropriate regulatory procedures in overseeing the now-destroyed fertilizer plant.

Wilson argues that accidents such as the ones in Richmond, California, and West, Texas, are proof of ineffective oversight — a failure of the status quo. He says the current regulatory system is underfunded, levies only minor fines, and relies too much on industry self-reporting. The system doesn’t need minor tweaks, he argues, but fundamental change.

"The United States needs to shift the burden of proof, of proving an adequate level of safety, to industry," Wilson says. Unlike in Europe, the U.S. regulatory system makes a presumption of safety, until regulators or inspectors prove otherwise. "We need to put in place what’s called a ‘safety-case approach’, where industry has to demonstrate safety as a condition of operation." He adds that such a shift would require "competent, well-funded, and technically trained regulatory agencies."

According to the AFL-CIO, country’s largest labor union, OSHA employs 2,178 inspectors (892 federal inspectors and 1,286 state inspectors) to inspect the eight million workplaces under its jurisdiction, or one inspector for every 58,945 workers. That would allow federal OSHA inspectors to inspect each facility once every 131 years, the union says. The AFL-CIO’s annual report on work-related deaths calculates the OSHA’s average fine for fatal accidents at $7,900.

Paul Leigh, a health economist at the University of California, Davis, says the best way to get industry to improve workplace safety is by “putting the right price on occupational hazards and workplace deaths.”

He says courts value a life at about $3 million in wrongful death cases, while the EPA puts the value at $7 million to $10 million. But workers compensation insurance, which provides wage replacement and medical benefits to employees injured or killed on the job in exchange for their giving up their right to sue, pays only about $100,000 to $200,000 per case, he says -- not enough to force industry to institute safety precautions.

Industry also doesn’t assume the full costs of accidents and workplace deaths, with “society at large” subsidizing costs such as hospitalization and care for the sick and injured, and firefighters’ salaries, Leigh says. "If companies were held financially responsible, they would invest more in prevention, in training workers on how to do a job safely and sometimes maybe on how to do it slower."

Evidence shows that an emphasis on safety can bring results. When Paul O'Neill took over as CEO of aluminum giant Alcoa in 1987, he pledged to rid the company of workplace accidents. O’Neill stepped down in 2000 to become treasury secretary, leaving behind a company that had emerged as one of the safest places to work in the world, according to the Huffington Post, while recording record profits. In 2010, 82 percent of Alcoa facilities went without a single day of work lost to employee injury.

Scott Jensen, a spokesman for the American Chemical Council, says it's too early to draw broad conclusions from the West, Texas, explosion. He says the ACC, a trade association representing chemical companies, would review the findings of the Chemical Safety Board when they are published and respond accordingly.

"Of course industry doesn't want these accidents to continue to happen,” Jensen says. “ACC is committed to working with the federal government to improve safety and to prevent them from happening."

Jensen acknowledges that strengthening industry safety standards remains an important issue, but says more regulation isn't always the answer. "It may be that the answer is strengthening current regulations."