Monday, March 19, 2007

OSHA scarce at Houston plants; Insite scarce at Chronicle

The writer of this hit piece proves to be sufficiently clueless as to the nature of OSHA:
Federal regulators responsible for ensuring worker safety have not conducted planned inspections of the vast majority of area petroleum refineries over the last five years — including the BP Texas City plant where 15 people were killed two years ago, a Houston Chronicle review of federal records shows.

Instead, inspections by the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration of local refineries have been conducted only sporadically — sometimes after years of no visits by inspectors at all. And the few inspections that have been conducted all came after a complaint, referral or accident, records show.
First of all, federal regulators are not responsible for ensuring worker safety: workers themselves (including management) are responsible for setting up safety systems and procedures that give them the highest chance of working safely.

Second of all, OSHA always has been and always will be a reactive force, not a proactive one. That is the nature of their charter and behavior.

Of course, Houston Chronicle writers do not have a monopoly on cluelessness:

"OSHA's oversight role has been a major focus of our investigation for more than a year and we will be presenting significant findings (Tuesday) in our final report," CSB Chairwoman Carolyn Merritt told the Chronicle.

OSHA defends its enforcement record, saying it ensures safe workplaces through vigorous inspections and voluntary compliance programs.

Merritt said that approach may not be effective.

"Voluntary programs and partnerships have a useful role, but they should never be used as a substitute for strong regulations, inspections and enforcement," Merritt said.

We have met Ms. Merritt before.

Then again, let's hear some chemical talk from a lawyer.
"There is an acute lack of OSHA oversight in an industry that needs to have a high level of oversight because of the nature of the dangers inherent in cooking gasoline," said Brent Coon, a Beaumont lawyer who has represented injured workers in the March 23, 2005, BP blast.
Yes, "cooking gasoline" is exactly what they do at refineries. Brilliant.

Now, let's get to solutions. The ever-present "budget cuts", that is, "we need more money."
Gary Beevers, District 6 Coordinator for the United Steelworkers, said OSHA wasn't always viewed as being lax. Shortly after it was established by Congress in 1970, he said, the agency was known for its unannounced inspections of petroleum refineries and heavy fines.

But throughout the 1980s, the agency fell victim to budget cuts, Beevers said. It also began focusing more on personal safety issues — such as making sure workers are wearing protective goggles and reducing slips and falls — and took its eye off the larger process safety issues that can lead to explosions. Process safety deals with the operation of equipment and the handling of hazardous materials.

But are we safer now than then? Ray Skinner seems to think so:
"When I first came here there was hardly a week when we didn't have a fire or explosion in this area," said Skinner, who retired in 2004. "Then after a massive outreach, we saw the industry turning around." As the result of the new regulations, he said, the industry is much safer today and experiencing far fewer fires, explosions and chemical releases.
And lastly, the specter of fear:
"I don't see many people shaking in their boots when they hear OSHA is coming," Mannan said.
Why does Mannan think that fear makes companies operate safety. Here is a clue: it does not. Never has, never will. Compliance with rules and regulations has never, nor will ever be enough.

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