That’s the headline from an editorial in today’s Savannah Morning News, laying responsibility for the broken workplace safety regulatory system on the Secretary of Labor’s desk. The words of editorial page editor, Tom Barton, sound like those I’ve heard before when a workplace disaster strikes a town. Journalists, community leaders, and family member victims are appalled to learn that OSHA and MSHA don’t work as well as our civics books would lead us to believe. It’s not until the deaths, injuries and heartbreaks hit your own backyard, do people care enough to figure it out.
I don’t agree with everything that Mr. Barton writes, such as seeming to agree with Imperial Sugar officials who use the lack of OSHA penalties (only $315 in fines over the past seven years) as evidence that the firm had a “superb” safety record. But I couldn’t agree more with Barton when he says: Chao and Foulke have “been asleep at the switch – perhaps fatally so.”
Read the full Savannah Morning News editorial below:
Shame on Elaine Chao
By Tom Barton
John Sheptor seems as button-down and corporate as the guy who sells power tools at Sears. The 49-year-old president and chief executive officer of Imperial Sugar Co., who spent 90 minutes Friday with reporters and editors of this newspaper, comes across as forthright and sincere. So when he says the Port Wentworth refinery that erupted Feb. 7 into a deadly fireball had a “superb” safety record, you’re inclined to believe him. (Especially since he backs that up with data: Workplace safety officials have levied just $315 in fines at the plant over the past seven years, he said.)
So how did at least 10 workers die and another 13 become critically burned in a dust explosion in plant that was superbly safe? I can’t tell you. But here’s something that the feds in Washington definitely knew 15 months before the Georgia refinery became a living hell: There’s no comprehensive federal OSHA standard to control the risk of dust explosions in the general industry.
That’s right. There’s nothing in OSHA’s thick rulebook about a combustible dust standard. Instead, the only regs that exist are those that companies follow voluntarily, or, those that state and local officials adopt and enforce.
Sheptor said Friday that Imperial Sugar is committed to safety and had many dust suppression systems in the Port Wentworth refinery. He’s very persuasive. You can’t say the same thing about the Labor Department and OSHA. They’ve been asleep at the switch – perhaps fatally so.
Both OSHA and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board have started separate follow-up investigations at Imperial Sugar. The Chemical Safety Board is an independent arm of the federal government that reviews health and safety regs for effectiveness. It makes recommendations to OSHA, which can accept or reject them. On Nov. 6, 2006, the board recommended that OSHA issue a new national regulatory standard designed to save lives by preventing dust fires and explosions like the one at Imperial Sugar.
This call for action didn’t come arbitrarily. It followed a two-year investigation in which the board identified 281 combustible dust incidents between 1980 and 2005 that killed 119 workers and injured 718 more. Here are two of the key findings as reported in a press release: “There is no OSHA standard that comprehensively addresses combustible dust explosion hazards in general industry.” It said many states and communities have fire codes related to combustible dust, but that officials “rarely” inspect industrial facilities.
So how did Labor Secretary Elaine Chao respond? By doing nothing. Did Edwin Foulke Jr., her underling at OSHA, do anything on his own? Not a chance.
Did Georgia’s congressmen express any concern? Not that I could tell.
Fortunately, at least two lawmakers on the other side of the country get it. They are Reps. George Miller and Lynn Woolsey, two Democrats from California. On Feb. 8, the day after the Port Wentworth blast, they wrote Chao a letter. They asked her to take immediate steps to issue a comprehensive standard to help prevent future dust explosions.
“Methods used to control combustible dust hazards are well known,” they wrote Chao. “Detailed voluntary standards published by the National Fire Protection Association are effective in preventing combustible dust explosions.
“As we tragically seen in Savannah, however, voluntary standards are not enough. Without an OSHA standard, many employers are unaware of the hazards and control methods, and others decline to comply with voluntary standards.”
Sheptor, who said he once worked as an environmental safety and health manager, seemed like someone who would be aware of dust hazards and control methods. But here’s something I can’t figure out about the explosion at his refinery:
Why do Chao and Foulke still have jobs? [Emphasis bold is added.]
In sympathy, an update (2/25): Another worker who was severely burned on 2/7 at the Dixie Crystals sugar refinery died from his injuries. The total number of deceased victims is now 11, and 15 workers remain in the hospital.
Celeste Monforton, MPH worked at the U.S. Department of Labor for 11 years, at OSHA (1991-1995) and MSHA (1996-2001). She encourages family-member victims of workplace fatalities and workers themselves to join United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities as a way to fight for improvements in occupational health and safety protections and a more effective OSHA and MSHA.