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

Preventable deaths

A complete picture of the conditions at VPP workplaces is hard to come by. Unless a worker dies on the job or at least three workers are sent to the hospital, OSHA often doesn’t conduct an investigation, making non-fatal accidents at VPP sites difficult to track. Member companies and OSHA often cite injury and illness rates as a measure of how well an employer is protecting its workers, but government auditors and experts have questioned the wisdom of relying solely on these self-reported numbers, which can be inaccurate or misleading.

iWatch News tried to determine the extent to which VPP sites outperform other companies in the same industry – the comparison OSHA makes when evaluating VPP sites’ injury and illness rates. An analysis of agency data obtained under an open records request indicated that, between 2000 and 2008, an average of about 13% of VPP sites each year were worse than their industry peers on one or both of the injury and illness measures used by OSHA.

In each year, at least a few sites had rates of injury and illness more than double the average at other workplaces in their industries. OSHA said it couldn’t confirm these numbers, and the agency did not respond to requests by iWatch News for its own numbers. A Government Accountability Office audit looking at rates from 2007 found similar numbers.

Documents obtained by iWatch News provide a glimpse of safety lapses involving companies in VPP. Case files detailing OSHA investigations of fatal accidents at VPP sites, though often heavily redacted, show that some deaths were, in the view of agency inspectors, preventable.

“Proper training along with working two employees together and a review of the duties to be performed would have prevented this accident,” OSHA concluded after an investigation of a fatal accident in 2003 at the Tobyhanna Army Depot in Tobyhanna, Pa., in which a pressurized tank lid blew off and hit the employee.

Following an investigation of a fire that claimed a worker at Eastman Chemical Company’s Longview, Texas, plant in 2003, OSHA determined that the worker could have survived the blaze if the company had provided the proper protective suit.

And after an investigation of a catastrophic boiler explosion in 2008 at International Paper’s mill in Vicksburg, Miss., OSHA found that the company did not act on recommendations from its own expert that, if followed, would have either prevented the explosion or minimized the risk to workers. As it was, the blast killed one worker and injured another 22, at least three of whom remained in medically induced comas for months as doctors treated grave burns.

In each case, OSHA alleged violations of safety standards VPP members are expected to exceed, but the company remained in VPP. In the Eastman and International Paper cases, some of the violations were reduced after the company contested them.

Representatives of Eastman and International Paper declined to discuss the accidents. Russ Dunkelberger, Tobyhanna’s safety manager, said that the depot regularly exceeds OSHA safety requirements; the 2003 death, he said, was not indicative of larger problems.

At least seven sites have experienced multiple fatal accidents while in VPP; four remain in the program today. Two companies, International Paper and Georgia-Pacific — among the largest corporate participants in the program — have four sites each where workers have died since 2000.

Some accidents have occurred just months after OSHA officials determined the site belonged in VPP.

In May 2009, the agency announced that American Packaging Corp.’s Columbus, Wis., plant had earned “Star” status. OSHA Area Director Kimberly Stille, presenting the company with a flag and a plaque, noted American Packaging’s “excellent record in workplace safety and health,” “outstanding efforts” by management, and “exceptional employee involvement in safety and health programs.”

Five months later, an explosion rocked the plant, killing 47-year-old worker Jeffrey Doxtater. OSHA investigators found a host of deficiencies, including inadequate training, protective gear and written safety procedures, as well as problems with the company’s handling of hazardous substances. The agency found 29 serious violations of safety regulations, and proposed a $127,350 fine.

This time, Stille was not so laudatory of the company’s safety achievements. “These types of violations show the company’s disregard for the safety and welfare of its employees,” Stille said in a press release announcing the violations. “Those who ignore safe practices and OSHA regulations are inviting tragedy into the lives of their workers.”

American Packaging didn’t respond to requests for comment. In an earlier statement, the company said it was “shocked and dismayed” by OSHA’s proposed penalties and noted its status as a member of the club. “Approval into VPP is OSHA’s official recognition of a company’s outstanding efforts and excellence in occupational safety and health,” the company stated. American Packaging is contesting the citations.

The Labor Department, in a written statement, said that approval of VPP status was based on the standard evaluation by a VPP team, which is “not a comprehensive safety and health investigation.” The government also said it is weighing whether the operation in Columbus still meets the program’s requirements.

In the meantime, American Packaging remains in VPP.

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