An OSHA of Contradictions: ‘Model Workplaces’ Not Always So Safe

By Chris Hamby, iWatch News

First in a series, “Model Workplaces, Imperiled Workers,” by the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News

OSHA photo

In October 2005, a spark triggered an explosion at a Tropicana juice processing plant in Bradenton, Fla. Flames engulfed mechanic Rob Hackley and burned a co-worker who came to his aid. For weeks, Hackley clung to life, undergoing multiple surgeries to treat second- and third-degree burns covering two-thirds of his body. Somehow, he survived.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the nation’s chief overseer of workplace safety, concluded that the fire could have been prevented if Tropicana had followed basic safety requirements. The company should have evaluated the risks, given workers tools that didn’t produce sparks, monitored for a buildup of flammable vapors and ventilated the area.

Nearby, inspectors uncovered another problem. Employees had to risk a dangerous fall while performing some tasks; the company had refused to pay for a piece of equipment that would have reduced the hazards.

In the official report, inspectors didn’t mince words. They found instances in which “employees were told to ‘throw safety out the window’ and get the work done.” Company managers had shown “deliberate, voluntary and intentional disregard to employee safety.” The inspectors tallied up a dozen violations, including two of the most serious kind that OSHA can allege.

Center for Public Integrity logoYet the federal government had for more than a decade considered the Tropicana plant a “model workplace,” and it still does. The plant is one of more than 2,400 across the country that has gained entry into OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Programs, known as VPP — a club whose membership benefits include an exemption from the agency’s regular inspections. Participating sites range from chemical plants and refineries to shipyards and sawmills.

The explosion in Bradenton is hardly the only case of preventable harm to workers at one of OSHA’s exemplars of safety. Since 2000, at least 80 workers have died at these sites, and investigators found serious safety violations in at least 47 of these cases, records examined by the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News show.

Workers at plants billed as the nation’s safest have died in preventable explosions, chemical releases and crane accidents. They have been pulled into machinery or asphyxiated. Investigators, called in because of deaths, have uncovered underlying safety problems — failure to follow recognized safety practices, inadequate inspections and training, lack of proper protective gear, unguarded machinery, improper handling of hazardous chemicals.

Yet these companies have rarely faced heavy fines or expulsion from the program. In death cases in which OSHA found at least one violation, VPP companies ultimately paid an average of about $8,000 in fines. And at least 65% of sites where a worker has died since 2000 remain in VPP today.

Though Tropicana, a unit of PepsiCo, paid $164,250 in fines stemming from the explosion in Bradenton, the plant stayed in the program. Sixteen months after the fire, OSHA formally reapproved the plant as a “Star” site — the highest level in the club of companies pledging to exceed OSHA standards.

Tropicana said it has corrected problems identified following the explosion and is one of the safest companies in its industry. The Labor Department, which oversees OSHA, said in a written statement that problems were found only in one area of the plant, and that Tropicana took “aggressive action” to fix them.

The program’s supporters note that fatal accidents can occur despite the best efforts of well-intentioned companies; even VPP sites can’t be perfect. But former OSHA officials interviewed by iWatch News said that a death at a VPP workplace should raise serious concerns, especially when accompanied by underlying safety violations.

A fatal accident is “the ultimate failure at a VPP site,” said David Martin, who left OSHA earlier this year after a long career as an inspector, assistant area director and compliance assistance specialist in Pennsylvania. “The whole concept of the program is to prevent fatalities and injuries.”

David DiTommaso, who left OSHA in 2005 after 25 years as an area director in Montana, said, “If you have an OSHA violation and somebody died as a result of that, I can’t imagine how that company can stay in the program.”

The current No. 2 official at OSHA, Jordan Barab, told iWatch News that a death leading to the discovery of serious violations is “certainly a strong indication that you’ve got a serious problem.” But overall VPP is “very useful as a model to all employers of what can be achieved,” he said.

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