The disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine in Coalmont, West Virginia has justifiably brought a lot of attention to the issue of worker safety and the need for strong regulation to protect America’s workers. But as Chris Bowers points out, this is the kind of story you can write every day in America. Worker safety didn’t become a problem because of one mine explosion in West Virginia. Indeed, 16 American workers die every single day, on average, at the workplace, and the federal agencies tasked with making sure that doesn’t happen need more resources and more tools to combat such tragedies.
Why, just days before the Massey Energy mine accident, another energy plant saw a deadly workplace disaster:
The death toll from Friday’s fire at Tesoro’s Anacortes refinery in Washington state grew to five, according to news reports.
Three refinery workers were earlier reported to have died following the fire, and a fourth and fifth died of their injuries after being taken to a hospital in Seattle, according to news media reports.
Two other injured workers remained in critical condition at the Seattle hospital.
Sources indicated to Reuters that the fire was caused by a failed heat exchanger, which alternately heats and cools hydrocarbons at the plant. Workers were replacing a separate heat exchanger when this one failed, causing an explosion.
The Chemical Safety Board, an independent federal agency which oversees refineries like this, was already investigating a flash fire at a separate Tesoro refinery in Utah from last October, as well as multiple other fires across the country. A similar blast killed 15 workers at a BP refinery in Texas in 2005. This is becoming an epidemic.
CSB (Chemical Safety Board) Chairman and CEO John Bresland said, “The CSB has 18 ongoing investigations. Of those, seven of these accidents occurred at refineries across the country. This is a significant and disturbing trend that the refining industry needs to address immediately.”
And yet, the Chemical Safety Board cannot issue citations or fines, only safety recommendations. They can request that a refinery shut down because of safety concerns, but they cannot mandate it.
This is just an example of where government lacks the tools and resources necessary to keep American workers safe at their jobs. There are worker’s memorials all over the country which are a living reminder that we have not succeeded in creating safe and secure workplaces. Every April, Worker’s Memorial Day serves to deliver that reminder.
That’s where the Protecting America’s Workers Act (PAWA) comes in. The Obama Administration under the leadership of Hilda Solis is actually doing a great job of restoring the gutted agencies under the Labor Department’s purview, which have been ravaged by 30 years of deregulation and industry capture. But the regulations themselves need to be beefed up, in addition to having better regulators and better tactics. David Michaels and Jordan Barab are leading the Occupational Health and Safety Administration into a new era. They actually slapped the largest fine in history on BP for their failure to fix safety violations even AFTER their 2005 refinery explosion. OSHA is reconfiguring their inspections to target severe violators.
All of this is good. But now they need to be given the ability to succeed. PAWA would do that, by extending OSHA coverage to 8 million more workers, by updating civil and criminal penalties for violations, and by providing an effective deterrent to employers to maintain unsafe workplaces.
We need to eliminate the kinds of headlines we see in West Virginia or Washington or Texas. We need employers to live up to their responsibilities. We need to protect America’s workers.