Occupational Health News Roundup

At the Center for Public Integrity, Jim Morris reports on working conditions at the nation’s oil refineries, writing that more than 500 refinery incidents have been reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency since 1994, calling into question the adequacy of EPA and federal labor rules designed to protect workers as well as the public. Morris begins the story with John Moore, who in 2010 was working at a Tesoro Corporation oil refinery north of Seattle — he writes:

Up the hill from Moore, in the Naphtha Hydrotreater unit, seven workers were restoring to service a bank of heat exchangers — radiator-like devices, containing flammable hydrocarbons, that had been gummed up by residue and cleaned. Most of the workers didn’t need to be there; it was, for them, a training exercise.

Moore was monitoring the job by radio. “They were maybe two-thirds of the way to putting the bank online when I heard a noise from outside,” he said. “I felt a tremendous vibration in my feet,” followed by the whooshing sound of “a match hitting a barbecue.”

Exchanger E-6600E, part of a bank that had kept running while the other one was down, had come apart and disgorged hydrogen and a component of crude oil called naphtha, which ignited. Moore called each of the seven workers on the radio and got no response. Thirty or 40 seconds later he heard the strained voice of the crew’s foreman, Lew Janz. “Lew said, ‘Get someone up here. We’re all dying.’”

At the time of the Tesoro explosion, Michael Silverstein headed up the Washington state Department of Labor and Industries’ Division of Occupational Safety and Health. Morris reports:

The more Silverstein learned about what had happened at the refinery, the angrier he became. He was told about the troublesome heat-exchanger leaks during startup; workers routinely used steam lances to suppress flammable vapors. “It was unfathomable to me why Tesoro had decided to place workers in positions of known danger rather than making more expensive but definitive fixes to these leaking units,” Silverstein said.

He learned about a corrosion mechanism called high temperature hydrogen attack, or HTHA, which can cause tiny cracks in equipment, like the exchangers, subject to intense heat and pressure. He learned that the company hadn’t done the sorts of inspections required to find these micro-cracks, which can turn into bigger ones.

Silverstein was bothered in particular by a 1999 Tesoro document stating that it was “economically attractive” to push reactors and exchangers to their limits in older units. The document urged “very close control and monitoring of operating conditions, coupled with frequent inspection” under such circumstances.

Read the full investigative story, which is part of the center’s “Carbon Wars” series, at the Center for Public Integrity.

In other news:

Charleston Gazette-Mail: Ken Ward Jr. reports on the future of mine safety in the context of the incoming Trump administration. Joe Main, outgoing Mine Safety and Health Administration chief, said he’s concerned that complaints from the coal industry could encourage an erosion of safe working conditions, noting that he’s reaching out to industry officials to encourage them not to seek big changes to mine safety rules. On the flip side, Ward reported that Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, has said that mine safety changes enacted during the Obama administration should be reviewed by the incoming administration. Ward writes: “Last month, MSHA released updated data that it said showed an all-time low in the number of deaths and fatality rates in the mining industry. …MSHA says that mine safety ‘has been on a steady path to improvement’ since Main began instituting a variety of reforms after the April 5, 2010, explosion that killed 29 miners at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County.”

Atlantic Monthly: Lyndsey Gilpin reports on sexual harassment within the National Park Service, writing that since January 2016 when the Department of Interior released a report revealing that female employees at a Grand Canyon district had been sexually harassed for years, women working at parks and sites across the country have spoken up about harassment on the job. This year alone, more than 60 current and former Park Service workers contacted High Country News to discuss their sexual harassment experiences. Factors contributing to the problems, Gilpin reports, include a culture of “machismo” and a history of retaliation. Gilpin writes: “(T)he Park Service has allowed alleged perpetrators to retire, resign or be transferred to other parks. In 1998, Yellowstone Chief Ranger Dan Sholly was accused of sexual misconduct and transferred to a Florida park. This year, the superintendent of Canaveral National Seashore in Florida, who was in charge while employees were sexually harassed for years by a chief ranger, was put on a detail for the Southeast Regional Office and allowed to work from home.”

Slate: Anjali Kamat reports that more than three years after the deadly collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh killed more than 1,000 workers, those working in the nation’s apparel industry continue to face abusive and dangerous working conditions. Workers say that while the factory buildings may be safer, workers still have few rights. The story begins with Taslima Akta, a sewing operator at a factory called Windy Apparels, who died at work after supervisors ignored her complaints about feeling ill and refused to let her leave early. In speaking with Taslima’s colleagues, Kamat writes: “Many said supervisors had routinely denied requests for sick leave for anyone who wasn’t violently ill. One described a co-worker being warned she would be fired if she didn’t return from sick leave after a single day. None of them wanted me to use their names; they were all scared of losing their jobs. When I asked about the new safety regimes implemented after the Rana Plaza collapse, they didn’t want to talk about the structural improvements or the new fire safety measures. Taslima’s death had shattered their illusions of safety.”

Fair Warning: Myron Levin and Paul Feldman report on Exponent Inc., “a publicly traded giant in litigation defense and regulatory science” and a “go-to” source for industries with liability problems. A Fair Warning analysis revealed more than 1,850 peer-reviewed articles, letters and book chapters by Exponent scientists and engineers since 2000, with hundreds funded by corporations and trade groups on topics ranging from asbestos to chemical pollution. Levin and Feldman write: “Critics counter that this quest for truth leads down predictable paths. In his 2008 book, ‘Doubt is Their Product,’ David Michaels, now assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, criticized Exponent and several of its science-for-hire rivals. ‘While some might exist,’ Michaels wrote, ‘I have yet to see an Exponent study that does not support the conclusion needed by the corporation or trade association that is paying the bill.’”

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for 15 years.