By Elizabeth Grossman
We have learned from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) documents obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request and released by the Center for Public Integrity earlier this month that there are currently about 465 United States industrial facilities on what the EPA calls its “watch list.” The list is made up of businesses EPA considers chronic violators of the Clean Air Act – but against which the agency has taken no formal enforcement action. An examination of these same companies’ occupational health and safety records reveals them also to be chronic violators of Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) standards.
These “watch list” facilities are located all over the country, but many are clustered in historical manufacturing hubs in the Midwest, Southeast, and along the Gulf Coast. Nearly all can be described as heavy industry. They include petroleum refineries and facilities making chemicals, cement, paper, paint, pharmaceuticals, and metal products, along with waste treatment (landfills, recycling, and incinerators) facilities, meat processing plants, mines, pipelines, a shipyard, and automotive plants. OSHA typically inspects about one percent of the United States’ 8 to 9 million workplaces annually, but more than 70 percent of the “watch list” companies have received OSHA inspections over the past ten years. Those without inspection records included US military facilities and mines that OSHA is not authorized to inspect, as well as a number of public facilities and utilities: municipal landfills, water treatment plants, and generating stations.
Overall, the OSHA inspection reports for the EPA “watch list” companies reveal what for many of these companies appears to be a history of chronic OSHA violations. Some of these companies had dozens of violations over the past ten years; a few had more than 100. (To round out the picture of these companies’ operations, I included both the specific “watch list” facilities and the individual companies’ comparable operations in other locations.) Among the companies with the most recorded OSHA violations at their various facilities around the country was BP Products, with more than 400 at facilities nationwide – violations that included 314 in one inspection record following the 2005 explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery that killed 15 workers. (The Deepwater Horizon incident does not yet appear in BP’s OSHA inspection records.) International Paper was cited for more than 295 violations, while Republic Engineered Products (part of Republic Steel) had more than 170 violations, various divisions of DuPont nationwide received more than 130 citations for OSHA violations, and the Greif company, manufacturer of packaging materials, was cited for about 100 violations nationwide in the past decade. Wheeling Pittsburgh Steel exceeded 100 violations since 2001, and Weyerhaueser‘s various divisions around the country were cited for more than 300.
Of the more than 330 facilities that had received inspections, only about 20 were listed as being cited for a single violation. Those with a single listed violation included companies with accidents – one fatal – and an incident in which several workers were hospitalized for formaldehyde exposure.
These 300-plus facilities’ OSHA inspection reports list about 50 employee fatalities. A number of these facilities experienced multiple fatalities – some in a single incident, others in subsequent years. It’s worth noting that some serious accidents may not be reflected in OSHA inspection reports if the incidents are currently under investigation. Additionally, some accidents do not incur violations, and as indicated by the OSHA inspection reports many businesses negotiate settlements that result in reduced penalties and deleted violations. Occupational illnesses often occur years after workplace exposure occurred, and many are never attributed to the facilities where workers were exposed. This means that OSHA inspection reports are only a partial indicator of workplace injuries and hazardous conditions.
The violations for which these companies were cited include numerous instances of what OSHA calls “repeat” and “willful” violations – violations that were not corrected after previous inspections or in OSHA’s words, “where the evidence shows either an intentional violation of the [OSHA] Act or plain indifference to its requirements.”
Environmental hazards in the workplace
We know from the “watch list” reports and from the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory that hazardous materials released from these facilities include heavy metals, volatile organic compounds, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. So it isn’t surprising that many facilities chronically violating the Clean Air Act are also failing to protect workers from chemical hazards. OSHA violations for which “watch list” facilities were cited include dangerous exposure to asbestos, benzene, cadmium, lead, general air contaminants, as well as citations for improper respiratory and eye protection. These facilities also had numerous violations for improper “process safety management of highly hazardous chemicals,” for handling of hazardous waste, for inadequate management of exit routes and fire safety, for failing to meet hazard communication, and for inadequate first aid provisions and medical services.
Also reflective of the heavy industries common to many facilities on the EPA “watch list” are numerous OSHA standards violations for noise, for machinery and power tool handling (including that of cutting and welding apparatus), and for safe operation of cranes and industrial trucks. Other common violations involved insufficient protection for work in confined spaces and improper guarding of floor and wall openings, and of stairs, both fixed and movable. When inspection reports described injuries, many of them detailed amputations, broken bones, and serious burns, incidents that involved heavy or sharp machinery and hot materials. Among the other causes of injuries and fatalities were electrocution, falling loads, crushing by or getting caught in machinery, explosions, and falls from high places or into water or vats of toxic industrial liquids.
That these violations date back ten years, spanning more than one presidential administration – and both good and bad economic years – would seem to indicate that the inspections are not reflective of changing political winds. The chronic nature of so many of these violations would also seem to indicate that the current violation citation and penalty structure do not appear to be preventative or a deterrent.
The EPA’s “watch list” focuses on Clean Air Act violations – emissions to the outdoor environment – rather than conditions inside these facilities. It doesn’t necessarily follow that because an industrial plant has high volume toxic air emissions its working environment is dirty or dangerous. But with these 465 facilities there does appear to be a striking correspondence between these companies’ outdoor air pollution and hazardous work environments. And these hazards may be accompanied by chemical exposures not captured by the OSHA inspection records – hazards that may be compounded for workers and their families by exposures resulting from living with and breathing the toxic substances these plants emit.
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.