Washington Update

Washington Update: Was the disaster in West, TX, OSHA’s fault?

When a tragedy occurs, it’s natural to ask questions.

Why did it occur? Could it have been stopped? Whose fault was it?

Following the deaths of at least 15 people and the more than 100 injuries suffered in the April 17 explosion at a fertilizer facility in West, TX, questions such as these have understandably surfaced. When attempting to answer them, several stakeholders and the mainstream media have highlighted one salient fact about the incident: The Adair Grain Inc. facility had not been inspected by OSHA in more than two decades.

Some stakeholders have pointed to this as an example of lax enforcement. After all, dangerous chemicals were stored at the facility – why wasn’t it on OSHA’s radar?

Maybe it should have been. The investigation into the blast is ongoing, and evidence could emerge – an unanswered worker complaint or an injury rate that leads to an inspection, for example – that suggests OSHA should have done more to prevent the tragedy.

But a safety consultant and former OSHA inspector sees it differently. He says it’s not fair to simply blame the agency for the explosion occurring.

“If someone robs the bank, are you going to say it’s the fault of the cops?” asked Rick Kaletsky, who is based in Bethany, CT. “Although people think of OSHA as being there to protect the worker, the bottom line is the employer is supposed to protect the worker. OSHA’s there to try to enforce it and see if it’s done.”

What the explosion in West, TX, and the lack of OSHA inspections at the facility highlight, however, are shortfalls in OSHA’s budget. Unlike the Mine Safety and Health Administration, which is required by law to inspect virtually every mine in the country multiple times a year, OSHA does not see the inside of every workplace.

“It is a stunning indictment of the underfunding of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which only has the resources to inspect each of America’s workplaces once every 26 to 243 years, depending on which state you live in,” said David Foster, executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, a partnership between unions and environmental organizations. OSHA has “startling few boots on the ground,” Kaletsky said. Fewer than 2,000 inspectors are available for the 8 million U.S. workplaces under OSHA jurisdiction, according to the AFL-CIO’s 2013 “Death on the Job” report.

The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health has suggested the disaster in West, TX, demonstrates the “dangers of the anti-regulatory environment that thrives in Texas.” The state had the most workplace deaths in the country in 2011, with 433, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The national average ratio of OSHA inspectors to employees is 1 in 66,776; in Texas, it’s 1 in 101,187, the AFL-CIO report claims.

Even with more funding, it would be impossible to go into every workplace and ensure all employers are doing their job by protecting workers. Still, that shouldn’t stop politicians from putting more money into a beleaguered agency such as OSHA.

“To say they don’t need people because that wouldn’t solve it – well, every little bit helps,” Kaletsky said. “If you add five more inspectors out there, you might save some more limbs and lives.”

The opinions expressed in “Washington Update” do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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