Occupational Health News Roundup

At the Tampa Bay Times, Neil Bedi, Jonathan Capriel, Anastasia Dawson and Kathleen McGrory investigate a June 29 incident at Tampa Electric in which molten ash — commonly referred to as “slag” — escaped from a boiler and poured downed on workers below. Five workers died.

A similar incident occurred at Tampa Electric two decades earlier. If the company had followed the guidelines it devised after that 1997 incident, the five men who died in June would still be alive, the newspaper reported. In particular, the five deaths could have been avoided if the boiler had been turned off before workers attempted maintenance. Tampa Electric says cost wasn’t a factor in deciding to leave the boiler on; however, experts say it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars each time a boiler is shut down. Bedi, Capriel, Dawson and McGrory write:

Tampa Electric officials said they had done similar work hundreds of times, including six maintenance jobs on slag tanks this year.

But experts told the Times the June 29 procedure — removing a blockage from the bottom of a slag tank while the boiler is running — is always risky.

Randy Barnett, a program manager at industrial training company National Technology Transfer Inc., who worked in coal-fired power plants for decades, called the practice “obviously unsafe” because it exposes workers to a trio of hazards: slag, high temperatures and extreme pressure.

Said Charlie Breeding, a retired engineer who worked for the boiler manufacturer Clyde Bergemann: “It does not take a genius to figure out that it is dangerous. Common sense tells you that when you’re dealing with molten ash well above 1,000 degrees in temperature, it’s dangerous.”

There is no guarantee the slag building up in the boiler will stay there.

Even the smallest change in conditions inside the boiler — a slightly different composition of coal feeding its fire, for example — can cause a plug to melt, sending the molten lava rushing into the tank below.

“All of a sudden, you’ve opened up the hole,” said George Galanes, who spent decades working in power plants in Illinois before becoming a consultant for Diamond Technical Services.

Galanes said the plants he worked at would never do that. “Too much risk,” he said.

Read the entire investigation at the Tampa Bay Times.

In other news:

Politico: Ian Kullgren reports that OSHA has erased data on worker fatalities from its home page and replaced it with how companies can voluntarily cooperate with the agency. The worker fatalities didn’t only get buried on an internal web page, the list was also narrowed to only include workplace fatalities for which a citation was issued. Previously, OSHA had a running list of worker deaths on its home page that included the date, name and cause of death and included all deaths reported to the agency, regardless of any citations issued. A Department of Labor spokesperson told Politico that the change was to ensure the public data was more accurate. However, worker advocates disagree. Kullgren quoted Debbie Berkowitz, senior fellow at the National Employment Law Project, who said: “It’s a conscious decision to bury the fact that workers are getting killed on the job. That is totally what it is, so that [Labor Secretary Alexander] Acosta can say, ‘Hey, industry is doing a great job and we’re going to help them.'”

Wisconsin Public Radio: Danielle Kaeding reports that three new lawsuits have been filed against Fraser Shipyards in northern Wisconsin for failing to protect workers from unsafe lead exposures. The suits mean the company is now facing four lawsuits on behalf of 44 workers. Earlier this year, Fraser agreed to OSHA fines of $700,000 for exposing workers to lead. Now, workers are seeking compensation for injury, illness, medical care and lost work. Last year’s OSHA investigation, which revealed that Fraser Shipyards was aware of the lead risk, also found that 75 percent of 120 workers tested had elevated blood lead levels. Fourteen workers had blood lead levels up to 20 times the legal exposure limit. Kaeding quoted attorney Matt Sims: “A gentleman who could speak fluidly and without hesitation before this toxic exposure now stutters when he speaks. He’s had changes in his personality. He finds it difficult to focus on everyday mundane tasks that any person wouldn’t have trouble with, and he experiences tremors to the extent that he’s unable to hold a welding torch anymore.”

CNN: Wage theft at the White House? Daniella Diaz reports that the Secret Service can no longer pay hundreds of agents to protect President Trump and his family, with more than 1,000 agents already having hit federally mandated caps for salary and overtime. The caps and salaries were initially devised to last the entire year. Secret Service Director Randolph Alles told CNN the budget problem isn’t just related to the Trump family, but has been going on for many years. Diaz reported: “According to the report, Alles has met with congressional lawmakers to discuss planned legislation to increase the combined salary and overtime cap for agents — from $160,000 per year to $187,000. He told USA Today this would be at least for Trump’s first term. But he added that even if this were approved, about 130 agents still wouldn’t be able to be paid for hundreds of hours already worked.”

ProPublica & NPR: In response to Michael Grabell’s and Howard Berkes’ investigation into a Florida law that allows employers to escape workers’ compensation costs for injuries to undocumented immigrant workers, the second-highest ranking member of the Florida Senate has pledged a legislative review of the law in question. During their investigation, the reporters found that nearly 800 undocumented workers in Florida had been charged with workers comp fraud for using fake identification during the hiring process or in filing for workers’ comp. Some of those injured workers were detained and deported. Grabell and Berkes write: “(Republican state Sen. Anitere) Flores said she is especially concerned about companies who may hire undocumented workers knowing that the threat of prosecution and deportation may keep them from pursuing workers’ comp claims if they are injured at work. ‘That’s borderline unconscionable,’ Flores said, adding that she’ll seek the legislature’s review of this use of Florida law as part of a planned broader look at the state’s workers’ compensation law.”

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for 15 years. Follow me on Twitter — @kkrisberg.

Comments

  1. #1 Marge Cullen
    August 26, 2017

    This is scary as hell.