West Fertilizer case shows OSHA needs a bigger budget, say worker safety advocates
Could more inspection power have prevented the tragedy?
The fine levied by OSHA against the company whose West, Texas fertilizer storage facility exploded in in April, killing 15 workers, “sends a message,” according to one worker safety coalition – but also highlights how understaffed the agency is.
O’Connor, Executive Director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH), said the penalty against the West Fertilizer Co. shows that federal government’s concern with worker safety – particularly around highly toxic chemicals – but it also underscores “direly needed” reforms.
“Though the $118,300 fine OSHA levied against the storage facility was significant, when compared to the value of the lives of workers who perished in the explosion, it is paltry,” said O’Connor. “The Occupational Safety and Health Act – the law that created OSHA – must be amended to allow the agency to impose a fine greater than $7,000 for a serious safety violation. The agency must be able to issue fines that will truly act as a deterrent to unsafe working conditions.
“As Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) noted when sharing the news of OSHA’s fine – which the agency could not deliver itself because its work has been stymied amidst the government shutdown – the agency tasked with protecting workers’ safety is ‘woefully understaffed.’
"Because OSHA’s budget is so limited, its investigators can only inspect a workplace once every 131 years, on average. Thus, it was not surprising that OSHA had not inspected the fertilizer storage facility in West, Texas, since 1985.”
O’Connor said that if OSHA had had the resources to conduct more inspections, the West fertilizer plant disaster could have been prevented.
“Congress must allocate greater resources to the agency responsible for keeping millions of workers safe on the job.”
Additionally, O’Connor called for chemical safety to be reformed – especially with regard to highly explosive substances like ammonium nitrate – 540,000 pounds of which were stored at the fertilizer facility.
“The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which Congress is working to update, should require companies using toxic substances to look into whether there are less hazardous substitutes available – and then to use them.”
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) – which was forced to halt its investigation of the West, Texas, explosion because of the government shutdown – should have enforcement powers, according to O’Connor. Currently, the CSB investigates chemical accidents and provides recommendations about how to prevent similar incidents in the future, but has no ability to see compel the adoption of its recommendations.