3 Months After Texas Fertilizer Explosion, Workplace Safety Still Ignored

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Long after the explosion of a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, killed 15 people, workplace safety violations continue to plague workers across the U.S. More than 4,000 Americans die on the job each year, according to official government statistics, while independent academic studies that take into account workplace-related diseases put the number as high as 49,000.

Occasional disasters like the factory collapse in Bangladesh, which killed 1,130 people in May, and the fertilizer explosion in Texas may grab headlines and incite public outrage for a few days, but paltry safety regulations ensure that violations prevail and accidents continue unabated in the future.

"Each level of protection is pathetically weak. You are talking about human life, not an investment decision. We are talking about the right to life. In that sense we are talking about safety and health as a human right being violated all over the place," said James Gross, a professor at Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, to Mint Press News.

Dangers beyond West,Texas

It was a textbook case of negligence by the operators of the factory. On April 17, 30 tons of fertilizer exploded near the town of West, Texas, killing 15 people, including 12 firefighters. The blast rocked the town, registering a 2.1 magnitude on the Richter scale, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. With a long history of safety violations stretching back to 1985, it appears that the West Fertilizer Company had again skirted safety violations.

What has changed since then? Well, not much - and that's exactly the problem, according to labor experts who see the lack of proper regulation as perpetuating the risk of more disasters to come in the future.

"The risk is great. The risk has been great ever since work began in this country. In terms of regulation, we have regulation at the federal level with OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration]. Various states, not Texas, have some health and safety regulations. I think there are now 26 states with ‘little OSHAs' which have to be at least as strict as the federal statute," Gross said.

For some Americans, that risk exists right in their backyard. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that an explosives manufacturer in the small town of Donora, Pa., stores as much as 23 million pounds of ammonia at a time, according to figures published by the Environmental Protection Agency. This means that the facilities carries 432 times the ammonia that was stored at the facility in West. It's one of 59 ammonia storage facilities scattered across Pennsylvania. Greenpeace reports that there are 12,000 plants across the U.S. that store and use highly toxic substances.

A former mayor of Donora says that residents "have no idea" of the risk that exists right in their town.

"I'll be very blunt with you. No. They have no idea," said Anthony Massafra, according to the Post-Gazette. "I'm sure people are not aware of what exists and what goes on down there."

Weak regulations, weaker penalties

There are no published reports showing that the Donora plant is violating any code, but with thousands of ammonia storage facilities across the U.S. and weak oversight, the possibility for another explosion looms large.

Part of the problem is with the regulatory agency itself. OSHA currently has just 2,000 inspectors tasked with overseeing the safety of roughly 7 million workplaces across the U.S. The agency complains that it is perpetually understaffed and underfunded.

Even if OSHA manages to catch a company violating the law, penalties for companies are generally a slap on the wrist at best.

"If any employer knowingly violates OSHA standards, and in the process an employee dies,

the maximum penalty that could be imposed on that employer is a $10,000 fine and 6 months in prison. Under the Environmental Protection Act, if you harass a wild animal in the desert somewhere, you can get up to a year in prison. Something is radically screwed up about the view of human life. Over the years different administrations have submitted proposals to increase penalties and they have all been defeated, not just by this particular Congress," Gross said.

This all occurs as the vast majority of working Americans continue to rank workplace safety as the most important issue when they go to work. According to a 2010 opinion poll by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, 85 percent of workers rank workplace safety as the most important labor issue - ahead of family and maternity leave, minimum wage, paid sick days, overtime pay and the right to join a union.

If the vast majority of Americans are calling for safer workplaces and there are ongoing, daily accidents, what is the solution?

For some lawmakers, the solution is actually less regulation and oversight.

"I don't think it has anything to do with the regulation side," said Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, shortly after the explosion in West, arguing that worker injuries and deaths would not be reduced by better safety regulations.

On the other side of the aisle, some Democrats in Congress have called for OSHA to be strengthened in the wake of the explosion in Texas. A group of Democrats on the House Education and the Workforce Committee introduced legislation in April that would give OSHA tools to ensure that employers promptly correct hazardous working conditions.

"Since OSHA was created, great strides have been made in protecting American workers," said Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), the ranking member of the House Workforce Protections Subcommittee. "However, too many workers are still dying, getting injured, or becoming ill by working in unsafe and unhealthy conditions. These bills will provide OSHA with the additional tools it needs to ensure a safe and healthy workplace for every American."

The New York Times reports that Texas is home to about 700 fertilizer depots similar to the one in West. It also holds the dubious distinction of having the worst safety record of any state when it comes to injuries and fatalities, with about 400 workplace deaths every year for the past decade.

The problem is that regulation increases costs, something anathema to companies in a free market economy.

"Nobody is in business for the safety and health of the employees. Are you kidding me? We are talking about human beings here - their eyes, arms, lungs and lives. They should be able to go to work without risking their bodily integrity," Gross said.

If an employee speaks out and refuses to take an unsafe assignment, he can be fired for insubordination. Workplace injuries have dropped 31 percent over the past decade, but allegations of employer retaliation for speaking out are on the rise, according to a recent report by The Wall Street Journal.

Over the same period, federal and state court cases regarding retaliation for workers compensation claims increased to about 100 last year - double the number of cases decided 10 years ago.

For labor experts, changing the status quo will require a change in laws that can only come about through greater worker control of industry.

"I am not saying that we do not need federal regulations or state regulation. What I am saying that the most effective promotion is at the workplace and that occurs those workers whose safety and health is at risk are advocating and taking control over those circumstances," Gross said.

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