Has OSHA Outlived its Purpose? Or Have we Crippled its Efficacy?

The 5th onshore workplace explosion since April occurred in Florida on July 29th. The Blue Rhino propane plant in Tavares, Florida, was the scene of a series of massive explosions that injured eight employees. Four of the eight workers are in critical condition at area hospitals.

After the West, Texas plant explosion, two chemical plant explosions in Louisiana, and the Indiana grain bin explosion, all occurring between April and the end of July, I'm questioning our safety protocols and our safety regulations across the board. 

4 states, 5 explosions, 18 deaths, more than 300 injuries. These statistics are a sign that there is something seriously wrong with American workplace safety protocols. And those are just the statistics for explosions on land. Don't we owe it to ourselves and to our communities, to do our utmost to make sure every workplace is safe? 

It has been 107 years since Upton Sinclair's transformative book, The Jungle, exposed the horrific practices of the American meatpacking industry. We have federal safety agencies that are so severely underfunded and understaffed that, on average, the American workplace will be inspected once every 99 years. And, in Texas, that average goes up to one inspection every 126 years.1

Aside from that, it may not even matter if your workplace does get inspected more frequently than once a century, because OHSA has made so few updates to safety regulations in the past few decades, that the Chemical Safety Board has gone so far as to publicly state that OSHA's inaction is "unacceptable."2 
 
You may be thinking that workplace safety is some kind of let-wing, socialist tactic to drive down corporate prices. It doesn't matter what side of the aisle you're on, politically. Safety is not partisan. Safety is critical to our economic health, it is critical to companies' profits, it is critical to the health of workers and communities. 

A safer workplace will mean a stronger bottom line, so why aren't companies investing in safety? 

Executives can no longer get away with the excuse that they are better at creating safe work environments than federal regulators. Jim Noe, the Executive VP at Hercules Offshore and the Executive Director of the Shallow Water Energy Security Coalition, an advocacy group that issued a statement 3 months ago that suggested regulators were being too tough on the industry.
Here's that statement:

"Ramping up the issuance of incidents of non-compliance for often trivial infractions is no substitute for technically substantive oversight - and threatens to take our eye off the ball on what is really important: what's going on at the drill floor and in the well," the group said in April."

He also famously said earlier this year, "If we see BSEE focus too much attention on writing traffic tickets for trivial matters, we could see a shift of focus off what really matters." 

What really matters is not having your rig explode because of a blowout, not having to evacuate your employees, not having to lose profits. Who really matters are the people who do the work to make Mr. Noe wealthy. Cutting any safety corners will mean bigger productivity, employee retention, and profit issues down the line. The little things pile up to create one giant mess. Just look what happened on the Hercules jack up rig last week.

BSEE and its predecessor, the MMS, are so underfunded, inspectors can't even inspect each rig once per month, as they are supposed to. As of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010, the MMS had 55 inspectors in the Gulf are supposed to visit the 90 drilling rigs once per month and the approximately 3,500 oil production platforms once per year.3 That number has not increased by much since 2010 and the creation of BSEE. 
 
Why, even in our economic downturn and federal funding crisis, do we see the need to cut OSHA's budget even further? Why do we think it is acceptable for the fertilizer plant in West, Texas, to not have been inspected since 1985. 28 years later, that plant had so much fertilizer in it, it destroyed a town. There are thousands more facilities like that across the country. Hundreds more that are in more densely populated areas. Houston, for instance, is filled with plants, refineries, warehouses, etc. that would all blow up in a second, destroying swaths of our city. 

Blaming these explosions on human error is fine. But humans created the conditions in which these people work and live. Humans created the opportunity for error and disaster when we don't implement effective safety measures at every level of industry. We have the responsibility to do our utmost to make our work environments, whether they be an office building, factory, plant, warehouse, oil rig, etc., as safe as possible. 

 

1http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324763404578431270477197746.html

2http://ehstoday.com/safety/photo-gallery-oshas-lack-response-recommendations-made-following-these-disasters-angered-us-c

3http://www.nola.com/news/gulf-oil-spill/index.ssf/2010/05/federal_inspections_on_oil_rig.html