Deaths And Safety Violations Found Inside OSHA’s ‘model’ Workplaces

Part of a series,”Mannequin Workplaces, Imperiled Staff,”by the middle for Public Integrity’s iWatch Information. The first article is right here.

On a December night in 2009, one thing went fallacious with boiler B28 at Valero’s oil refinery in Texas City, Texas. Technician Tommy Manis and his co-workers weren’t positive simply what it Petroleum Refining was. That they had tried more than a dozen instances to get the boiler started. They weren’t conscious of the dangerous levels of gasoline constructing up inside, ready to ignite.

Manis had never labored on B28 earlier than. His job took him to completely different parts of the plant, so he may not have identified the boiler’s history: During the earlier 15 months, there had been two explosions inside its hulking furnace. After the second, Valero decided fuel had built up and ignited. Now, with Manis and his co-staff nearby, gasoline once more flowed unchecked into the boiler.

Oil refineries are inherently harmful, and the business’s record of failing to curb hazards prompted the federal government in 2007 to begin subjecting them to more intense scrutiny in a particular enforcement program. However Tommy Manis and his wife, Laura, trusted that this refinery was safer. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the nation’s chief overseer of worker security, had formally certified the Valero refinery as a “mannequin workplace” with an exemplary record and an impeccable security program exceeding that required by regulators.

Key findings

– Since 2000, at the least eighty staff have died at “model workplaces” that OSHA considers the nation’s safest, and which it exempts from some inspections. In forty seven of these cases, inspectors discovered serious safety violations and,generally,tragedies that would have been averted.(Learn extra right here)

– Even within industries so hazardous the federal government targets them for intensive enforcement, “model workplaces” are exempt from these particular inspections. Regardless of inherent dangers and a file of failing to curb hazards, nearly one in three refineries is off limits to these inspections. (Read extra here)

– A minimum of seven employees have died at refineries which can be off limits to inspectors in the special inspection program concentrating on the refining business. Comparable perils have led to special scrutiny at workplaces in other harmful industries – however not for “model workplaces” in OSHA’s “Voluntary Protection Applications.”

– Many oil refineries within the Voluntary Safety Applications experience the same safety issues plaguing different refineries. iWatch News recognized fifty five fires during 2009 and 2010 at refineries below federal jurisdiction.Of these, about 40 p.c occurred at VPP refineries.

– Even when workers die and inspectors discover security violations, “model workplaces” often face minimal penalties and keep the special designation. At least 65 % of workplaces where a fatal accident occurred remain in the Voluntary Protection Applications right this moment.

‘Mannequin workplaces’ not always so safe

About this sequence

Over eight months, the middle for Public Integrity’s iWatch Information examined the nation’s “mannequin workplaces” and the fatal lapses that typically led to workers’ deaths. This series of tales depends on thousands of pages of authorities documents and inspection stories; multiple databases of the federal Occupational Security and Well being Administration; and interviews with current and former OSHA officials, union representatives, firm officials, accident victims’ households and office safety and health consultants. Among the many challenges in piecing collectively the story of OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program: The agency’s inconsistent injury and illness information, incomplete knowledge on fatalities, and heavy redaction of case files obtained under the liberty of knowledge Act.

This story was written and reported by Chris Hamby, with contributions from senior reporter Jim Morris, in addition to Mona Iskander of PBS’ “Must Know” Tv program, which aired a model of this story.

However does it work?

By Chris Hamby

July 7, 2011

iWatch reporter Chris Hamby is taking questions through Twitter on this collection. Send him your questions utilizing the hashtag beneath.

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It was a “Star” site in the company’s Voluntary Protection Applications — a distinction that, for Valero, conveyed more than just bragging rights. OSHA exempts members of this membership, generally known as VPP, from some inspections, including the special enforcement program targeting refineries and related initiatives designed to deal with hazards in a number of the nation’s most harmful industries.

Many of the nation’s largest employers covet the VPP stamp of approval — a mark now held by greater than 2,400 workplaces throughout the country, from sawmills and shipyards to energy plants and textile mills. Participation in this system helps reduce accidents and illnesses and lowers staff’ compensation prices, they say. For the Valero refinery in Texas City, it additionally meant a break on native taxes.

The VPP flag can appeal to and reassure employees. A purple, white and blue image of the federal government’s approval, it flies at nine of Valero’s refineries. Manis had obtained T-shirts, pens and Christmas ornaments stamped with this system’s brand — gifts from his employer. The refinery’s fame, his spouse recalled, had drawn Manis to apply for the job in the primary place: “He thought Valero was the cream-of-the-crop plant. It didn’t blow up. It was secure.”

That December night time, while in her automobile, Laura received a text message: Had she heard what happened on the refinery? She knew Tommy was in the middle of a shift. She dialed the sender and asked what was happening. “There was dead silence on the telephone, and i knew,” she recalled.

Investigators would later decide that Tommy’s demise could have been prevented. Valero hadn’t adequately investigated the primary boiler explosion or taken proper steps to forestall it from recurring, OSHA found. The company determined that the corporate hadn’t adequately skilled staff, evaluated dangers or ensured the problematic boiler conformed to extensively accepted safety standards.

Although Valero blames the businesses that manufactured and installed the boiler in an ongoing lawsuit, OSHA discovered fault with Valero, issuing a severe violation and highlighting a half-dozen safety issues. In a June 2010 settlement with the company, Valero agreed to repair issues at the refinery however didn’t admit to violating safety regulations. The company paid a $four,500 fine.

When the boiler exploded, Tommy Manis became the fourth worker at a VPP “Star” refinery to die for the reason that particular inspection progam began in mid-2007. Since his dying, three extra staff have died at one of those government-recognized refineries. Yet all five plants where the seven employees died retain OSHA’s stamp of approval immediately, an investigation by the center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News has found. Thus they remain beyond the reach of the company’s inspection program designed to protect those who work in one of the nation’s most harmful industries.

Fires, explosions — and exemptions

An identical story line has played out elsewhere: Recognition of “mannequin workplace” standing, missed opportunities to detect and repair hazards, a serious mishap or fatal accident, detection of security violations and, in the end, continuation of the government’s stamp of approval.

To make certain, there are success stories within the ranks of VPP members — damage rates lowered and employees’ compensation costs reduced, security lessons learned and disseminated. Even lots of the program’s critics consider it may work with satisfactory oversight. Like other companies in this system, Valero points to a safer office and improved employee engagement as the primary advantages of participation.

However company paperwork and knowledge and interviews with former OSHA officials, union representatives and experts reveal another side to the program — preventable accidents, unaddressed safety issues and overstretched regulators.

Membership in VPP exempts employers from inspections until there has been a severe accident, a formal complaint, or an occasion wherein OSHA learns of a particular potential hazard.

That exemption is probably nowhere extra helpful than for websites in industries that find themselves in OSHA’s crosshairs. OSHA’s recent deal with oil refineries gives a clear instance of the company’s method: Figuring out industries the place problems appear to be widespread, charging inspectors with policing them, however putting some websites off-limits for particular inspections. Roughly 30 “mannequin office” refineries are off-limits to inspectors underneath the program.

Not only have workers died at VPP refineries, these plants seem to have some of the identical issues plaguing the bigger refining industry.

Fires are a primary concern. Refineries are gas factories that use extremely flammable chemicals. Even small fires may be indicators of how well refiners are managing hazards that may lead to catastrophic explosions or toxic chemical releases. Laws require companies to evaluate potential dangers, take a look at gear, and examine mishaps as a part of what is known as “process security management” — the main target of the OSHA enforcement initiative concentrating on refineries.

Throughout 2009 and 2010, at the very least 21 of fifty five fires at refineries falling below federal jurisdiction occurred at VPP websites, an iWatch Information evaluation of regulatory and information media reviews found. VPP sites make up about 30 % of these refineries, so these authorities-acknowledged sites have experienced more than their proportionate share of fires.

Some refineries are in one of many 25 states that run their very own workplace safety businesses, which the federal authorities requires to be no less than as effective as OSHA. All the state agencies have a model of VPP. Many of those states have adopted the particular enforcement program, although data on these inspections are tougher to track.

The United Steelworkers union, which represents about 30,000 refinery staff, just lately reached the same conclusion after taking a look at incident information it had collected and speaking with native union officers: Refineries in VPP appeared to be just as dangerous as refineries outside of it. “We did not suppose there was any difference,” mentioned Mike Wright, the union’s well being, safety and atmosphere director.

Identical company, different scrutiny

The patchwork regulatory system wherein OSHA officials can conduct routine inspections and find violations at some workplaces while others are off-limits exists even inside companies; oil giants equivalent to ExxonMobil, ConocoPhilips and Valero personal both VPP and non-VPP refineries, so a few of their plants are shielded from special inspections whereas others aren’t.

At refineries that inspectors can go to as part of the special enforcement initiative, they steadily have found critical safety violations.

One company — Marathon Petroleum Firm — gives an instance. It owns four refineries beneath federal jurisdiction — two in VPP and two not in VPP. Throughout inspections carried out underneath the emphasis program in 2007 and 2008, inspectors proposed $479,000 in fines for sixty one violations mixed at two of the company’s refineries, in Texas City and Canton, Ohio.

The company deemed two of the violations in Canton “willful” — alleging that Marathon both deliberately violated the legislation or acted with “plain indifference” to it. In Texas Metropolis, 4 “repeat” violations concerned citations issued to the company in earlier inspections. OSHA later agreed to reduce the severity of the violations deemed willful in the Canton case, and Marathon paid the $321,500 tremendous. OSHA information point out the Texas Metropolis case has not been resolved.

But as VPP members, Marathon’s two different refineries underneath federal jurisdiction –in Robinson, In poor health., and Garyville, La. — are exempt from comparable inspections. Whilst the new enforcement program received underway, OSHA was concluding an investigation of a fatal accident at the Robinson refinery. In January 2007, a worker had died after being overcome by toxic fumes.

In that case, investigators discovered 5 severe violations. Among other things, OSHA mentioned, Marathon had failed to deal with some hazards in the unit the place the accident occurred, and the company had failed to research earlier comparable incidents. OSHA officials recognized the case as a priority under its Enhanced Enforcement Coverage, which means the company had decided “there’s cause to imagine that the employer could also be indifferent to its occupational security and well being obligations.”

Nearly every downside investigators alleged was a violation of the process safety management normal — the identical customary that was the main focus of the emphasis program and would be the basis of a lot of the citations at Marathon’s two non-VPP refineries.

In accordance with the OSHA report, one Marathon official “requested concerning the standing of VPP and the way OSHA views them since they’d a fatality.” The corporate had little to concern, it turned out. The next year, OSHA reapproved the Robinson refinery as a VPP Star site, allowing it to stay exempt from the continuing enforcement initiative. In a statement, the Labor Division said Marathon took steps to forestall future similar problems.

The Garyville refinery has additionally skilled fatal accidents. Since 2002, three employees have died there, though not one of the accidents resulted in citations for Marathon. The refinery remains a “Star” site today.

Marathon refused to debate specific accidents or the OSHA emphasis program but offered a press release that “Marathon is a powerful supporter of the VPP program and is proud to have many of its facilities VPP certified.”

Extra lately, an accident in August 2009 at ExxonMobil’s Joliet, Ailing., refinery — a VPP site — injured two employees and launched a extremely toxic chemical known as hydrofluoric acid, prompting an air pollution lawsuit from the state lawyer common and citations from OSHA. The entire violations initially alleged — from failing to identify hazards to failing to check gear and correct deficiencies — related to process security, the subject of the continued emphasis program. OSHA later agreed to delete one of many violations, and the company paid a $9,000 fine.

‘A matter beneath dialogue’

The government’s particular scrutiny of refineries stemmed from tragedy. In March 2005, an explosion killed 15 folks and injured 180 more at BP’s Texas City refinery, just a short drive from the place Manis would die 4 years later. The U.S. Chemical Security Board, the impartial federal agency that investigated the BP catastrophe, in 2007 urged OSHA to begin a “national emphasis program” that might give particular scrutiny to refiners in an attempt to curb hazards before catastrophe strikes.

OSHA shared concerns about the business. “As a result of the Texas City accident, OSHA started evaluating its data on fatalities and catastrophes and determined that refineries experienced more of these problems than the next three trade sectors mixed,” Richard Fairfax, who headed the agency’s enforcement programs, told a congressional subcommittee n 2007.

OSHA took the board’s recommendation and began the emphasis program later that year, specializing in course of security administration — the control of dangers associated with the use of extremely hazardous substances that could lead to fires, explosions or chemical releases. The company planned to inspect every oil refinery below federal jurisdiction.

Each refinery, that’s, except those in VPP.

The business has been amongst VPP’s strongest supporters. The current chairperson of the affiliation representing VPP contributors works for Valero spinoff NuStar Vitality. Two of the program’s staunchest supporters in Congress — Sens. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., and Mary Landrieu, D-La. — obtained more than a half-million dollars combined in contributions from the oil and gas business since 2005, based on data from the middle for Responsive Politics. General, the industry spent nearly $146 million to lobby the federal authorities in 2010.

Representatives for two oil industry commerce groups, the Nationwide Petrochemical and Refiners Association and the American Petroleum Institute, did not respond to repeated interview requests for this story. However the president of the refiners’ affiliation, Charles Drevna, did send OSHA chief David Michaels a letter last yr, urging continued assist for VPP. “There isn’t any want for OSHA to revisit and examine VPP worksites as part of the Refinery Process Security National Emphasis Program,” Drevna wrote.

But, to OSHA, that isn’t so clear. “We’ve had some fatalities in VPP refineries, so that is one thing [i.e., the National Emphasis Program] we are nonetheless attempting to determine,” said Jordan Barab, the company’s No. 2 official. Asked if the refineries beyond the reach of the present emphasis program are safer than those that are not, Barab mentioned, “One would hope so.”

To ensure they’re, he added, the company is contemplating inspecting a few VPP refineries. The company has the authority to do so, however there are different potential challenges, amongst them a scarcity of sources. The possibility of conducting intensive inspections at VPP refineries, then, is “a matter under discussion,” Barab mentioned.

The refiners’ association, in its letter to Michaels final 12 months, defended the exemption from special inspections. “VPP sites are exempt from programmed inspections as a result of the program has and continues to fulfill its objective to foster a collaborative atmosphere between administration, labor, and OSHA,” wrote Drevna, the association’s president. steam, heat conduction oil jacket heating reaction kettle “NPRA members believe that the exclusion of VPP websites from NEP inspections has not diminished the rigor whereby VPP sites are evaluated.”

The refinery emphasis program, which requires a big dedication of time and manpower from OSHA, will not be the one such ongoing program from which VPP sites are exempt. Since 2002, another OSHA emphasis program has targeted workplaces the place hazardous equipment may trigger severe injury or dying.

The initiative focuses on enforcing a couple of specific safety requirements at workplaces in a range of industries, together with paper mills, sawmills, food manufacturers and metal fabricators — all among the biggest industries in VPP.

iWatch Information identified four fatalities at VPP sites in the course of the past decade in these specific industries that resulted in OSHA discovering violations of those particular standards. At the least eight other fatal accidents at VPP websites concerned the types of hazards outlined within the enforcement program.

Different emphasis applications from which VPP websites are exempt deal with correcting hazards at federal company sites or ferreting out inaccurate or fraudulent injury and sickness recordkeeping.

A relatively new program raises related points to these introduced by the refinery initiative. OSHA is within the early phases of an emphasis program targeting related dangers — these offered by means of extremely hazardous substances — at chemical plants. With greater than 250 sites below federal jurisdiction, chemical manufacturing is the largest industry in VPP, and all of those sites are exempt from inspections underneath the continued program.

‘Nobody was trying over their shoulder’

By the time Tommy Manis was assigned to work on the troublesome boiler at Valero’s Texas City refinery in December 2009, two of the company’s different refineries had already been inspected beneath the OSHA emphasis program. Inspectors had found a mixed whole of greater than 30 violations and issued greater than $200,000 in fines to Valero’s refineries in Port Arthur, Texas, and Delaware Metropolis, Del. (OSHA agreed to cut back the severity of the violations and minimize fines within the Delaware Metropolis case, and Valero has since sold the refinery. Valero continues to be contesting the penalties in the Port Arthur case.)

Some imagine that OSHA’s findings may have raised purple flags. When the final of these violations have been introduced in June 2009 — lower than six months earlier than Manis’ loss of life –George Washington College College of Public Well being lecturer and former OSHA official Celeste Monforton raised issues on a public well being blog: “It makes me surprise whether similar violations … could be discovered on the ‘inspection-exempt’ Valero sites? After all, it is the same employer, the identical board of directors, the identical government staff and presumably the same safety policies and procedures at its sites.”

Valero spokesman Invoice Day stated there’s a company-broad security policy that’s applied at every site. “Security is equally important at all of our refineries,” he said. Ultimately, he mentioned, the company aims to have all of its refineries in VPP. “This can be a business that has to function safely so as to draw one of the best workers.”

Valero, in its lawsuit towards corporations that made and installed the boiler, states that, because of the “defective package deal boiler system,” “Valero suffered damages.” As a result of Texas workers’ compensation legal guidelines may shield Valero, Laura Manis’ lawsuit additionally targets the manufacturers. However she and her lawyer, Gary Riebschlager, blame Valero for the deadly blast.

After the earlier explosions, Riebschlager argues, Valero tried to repair the boiler on the cheap and get it again into service shortly. “All they had to do was repair it proper the primary time,” he mentioned. “However they didn’t as a result of they knew that no person was trying over their shoulder.” Once companies qualify for VPP, he added, “they know that OSHA’s not coming in.”

In May 2009 — two months after the second explosion and seven months earlier than the one which killed Manis — OSHA officials had been on the refinery, conducting an on-site evaluation to find out whether to reapprove the positioning’s VPP standing, which had been in impact for almost eight years. They’d chosen to use a “compressed reapproval process,” an abbreviated evaluation reserved for sites that the agency felt had demonstrated excellence.

The evaluation report made no mention of the boiler.

In a statement, the Labor Department mentioned the abbreviated evaluation was “unrelated” to the fatal explosion and had centered on necessities for participation in VPP. “The required applications and processes were in place at the time of the VPP on-site evaluation,” the division stated.

It is far from clear, in fact, that aggressive policing by OSHA would have prevented the explosion. Even an intensive inspection like those carried out below the emphasis program is not any assure that a site is downside-free.

However Kim Nibarger, a safety official with the United Steelworkers, mentioned he sees the Valero accident for example of bigger issues. The explosion, he said, offers more evidence that refineries in VPP aren’t higher at managing serious hazards than their non-VPP counterparts, and that the exemption from emphasis program inspections is “trigger for concern.”

The household’s lawyer, Byron Buchanan, said interviews with workers who have been on the accident scene, together with other evidence, indicated that Rodriguez was overcome by hydrogen sulfide as he and different employees fled a leak of the toxic gas. This fuel, a well-known hazard at oil refineries, additionally killed a worker at Valero’s Texas City refinery in 1998 — three years earlier than the site was authorised into VPP.

Valero spokesman Day acknowledged that there was a hydrogen sulfide leak but mentioned the reason for Rodriguez’s death wasn’t but clear. In court docket filings, the corporate denied allegations of gross negligence.

Rodriguez’s employer, Koch Specialty Plant Services, did not respond to requests for comment. In court docket filings, Koch stated its liability is limited “because responsible third parties might have caused or contributed to” Rodriguez’ dying.