Bloomberg recently ran a story titled Texas Explosion Seen as Sign of Weak U.S. Oversight; following that article, the Washington Post published another story posing the question: “Was lax oversight to blame for the Texas fertilizer explosion? Countless other regulators, labor lawyers and workers rights advocates are looking into details surrounding the tragic incident at the West Fertilizer Co. retail facility last Wednesday, which killed 14 people and injured over 200 others; out of this terrible event, they hope to put workplace safety back at the center of the discussion. Many agree that relaxed regulatory oversight might have been a factor in that deadly explosion. We should also remember, of course, that industrial accidents and toxic injuries claim workers’ lives every year, not only in front-page stories like the recent explosion in West, TX.
While conclusive evidence is not yet available, reports contain some potentially incriminating facts:
- The last time the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspected the facility was 1985.
- The U.S. has no federal rules requiring such plants to be located at a distance from residential neighborhoods; moreover, company safety plans are often not shared with residents in the area.
- West Fertilizer Co. was fined for a broad number of violations over the last several years. Last summer, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration required the company to pay $5,250 for improperly planning to transport anhydrous ammonia. Back in 2006, the EPA inspected West Fertilizer Company’s risk management plan at the plant, and discovered a series of violations and deficiencies, including the fact that the company filed the documents two years after the deadline.
- Environmental regulators examined the facility at least 7 times from 2002 to 2007. A complaint of strong odors in 2006 provoked an inspection that resulted in citations for several safety and environmental violations for operating without an air permit.
- Unions, workplace safety groups and environmental organizations have been urging the U.S. to increase federal oversight of chemical production plants and storage facilities.
- Lobbying groups for the chemical industry haves argued that this is little risk from the plants, and yet they have to observe a wide set of regulations and government oversight.
Probably the most alarming fact here is that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) hadn’t inspected the West facility since 1985. This is an absolutely shameful oversight. Of course it’s still unclear whether those inspections would have prevented the explosion — the Labor Department reports that OSHA is in the process of inspecting the blast site now to determine if health or safety violations were involved.
However, that gap certainly demonstrates the fact that OSHA does not have the manpower to conduct the number of on-site inspections it performed in years past. This Safety Inspection Chart from the agency indicates the drop in the number of safety inspectors since the 1970s.