Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) on Oct. 10 announced that OSHA has cited the parent company of West Fertilizer Co. in West, Texas, for 24 violations of occupational health and safety regulations. Due to the government shutdown, OSHA was not able to release the results of its investigation of the April 17 West Fertilizer Co. fire and explosion that not only killed and injured employees of the facility, but first responders and nearby residents as well.
“I’m stepping in here so as a result of my telling you these things, another explosion could be prevented,” Boxer said when announcing the results of OSHA’s investigation.
The violations – which included unsafe handling and storing of chemicals including ammonium nitrate, failure to train and license forklift operators, inadequate relief valves, lack of fire extinguishers, lack of an emergency response plan and failure to pressure test replacement hoses on chemical tanks – carry proposed penalties totaling $118,300. Not nearly enough, say some critics.
Tom O’Connor, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, commented, “In issuing a strong fine against the parent company of the West, Texas, fertilizer storage facility whose April explosion killed 15 workers, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sends a message that neglecting worker safety – particularly around the handling of highly toxic chemicals – will not be tolerated. But the West incident also pointed to many direly needed reforms.”
According to O’Connor, the $118,300 fine OSHA levied against the storage facility “was significant,” but when compared to the value of the lives of workers, responders and neighors who perished in the explosion, “it is paltry.”
O’Connor said the Occupational Safety and Health Act 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,” said O’Connor.
Boxer complained that OSHA is “woefully understaffed.”
OSHA’s staffing levels are such that investigators only can inspect a workplace once every 131 years, on average, though companies on the agency’s targeted inspection list receive visits more regularly. OSHA had not inspected the fertilizer storage facility in West, Texas, since 1985. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB), which investigates major chemical-related incidents and makes recommendations to the industry, was forced to halt its investigation of the West, Texas, explosion because of the government shutdown. Federal investigators at the facility complained privately that their investigations were compromised due to local and state interference and contamination at the site.
The West, Texas, explosion highlighted the need for reforms in chemical safety, especially highly explosive substances like ammonium nitrate – 540,000 pounds of which were stored at the fertilizer facility. O’Connor believes 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.
“Congress should change the law that governs the CSB to grant it the enforcement ability necessary to protect workers from avoidable chemical catastrophes,” O’Connor added.