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

A ‘wake-up call’

Mechanic Rob Hackley spent much of 10 Oct. 2005, scrubbing and shoveling sludge from equipment at Tropicana’s Bradenton, Fla., plant. The company had given him an extremely flammable cleaning solvent known as “Brake Wash” to use.

Though company managers knew well the heightened safety requirements for working with such hazardous substances, they did virtually nothing to address the dangers, investigators later found. Any one of an assortment of tools and equipment later found at the scene — but that shouldn’t have been there — could have triggered an explosion, investigators said. As it happened, it was Hackley’s electrical impact wrench.

“One little tiny spark is all it took,” recalled Cliff Vanluven, who was in the room with Hackley as it erupted in flames, singeing the hair off every uncovered part of Vanluven’s body and engulfing Hackley. Vanluven used his hands to beat out the flames that were consuming Hackley, suffering serious burns himself. “It seemed like forever,” Vanluven recalled.

The OSHA inspection yielded a scathing report. Two of the dozen safety violations were deemed “willful” — a designation so serious that companies with such violations can’t apply to VPP for three years. But Tropicana was already in the program, and regulators weren’t required to kick the company out. Tropicana paid the full $164,250 penalty and corrected the problems investigators had found, OSHA documents show.

In a press release, OSHA deemed the fire a “wake-up call” for Tropicana. The agency’s regional administrator, after meeting with company executives, said she was “convinced of their commitment to the high standards of the Voluntary Protection Programs,” according to an OSHA statement.

Tropicana refused interview requests from iWatch News but in a written statement said it has remedied problems identified following the explosion. “[W]e take seriously our responsibility to continually evaluate and enhance our procedures and systems,” the company wrote. “Our safety record exceeds our industry and our plants are among the top safety performers.” Of the fire in Bradenton, it said: “[W]e quickly developed and implemented new safety measures. These have been included in our workplace safety and training programs.”

October 2005 was not the first time OSHA had been called to the plant since it was admitted to VPP. In November 2000 — nine months after the site first earned “Star” status — a worker was crushed to death between a trailer and a loading dock. OSHA investigated but didn’t issue citations. Instead, the agency gave Tropicana a list of five recommendations to address voluntarily. In a letter to OSHA, the company said it had taken steps to address the recommendations.

Since the accident in 2005, OSHA has received three formal complaints about the Bradenton plant. One resulted in the issuance of a serious violation. In 2009, OSHA officials returned to the plant for a scheduled VPP re-evaluation and found deficiencies in how the company was identifying and controlling hazards. The agency re-approved the plant as a “Star” site under “conditional” status, essentially placing it on probation for a year. A follow-up evaluation is supposed to take place within 15 months; OSHA did not respond to requests for information about it.

Both Hackley and his wife, Kim, have regular reminders of the 2005 fire. Rob’s skin has healed well, Kim said, but he has scars on his chest and arms from the skin grafts. Sections of his skin are from cadavers and pigs.

Other wounds are less obvious. Rob has periodic anxiety attacks and shaking fits, Kim said. Sometimes he inexplicably gets so cold that they have to wrap him in blankets. After the accident, Rob received treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, Kim said. Rob himself is still too upset to discuss the accident, she said.

The Hackleys eventually reached a settlement with Tropicana, Kim said, but she couldn’t discuss the details. “I don’t know if it was fair or not,” she said. “When you’re dealing with a company as big as Tropicana, once the accident is over and you sign the papers, they’re done with you. But people have to live with the effects.”

Rob considered going back to work, she said, but “he just could not bring himself to get close to the plant.” He now has a slow-paced job at a small shop. He likes his work, and he sees a psychologist much less often.

“The one thing that really still bothers Rob is that they got to keep their ‘Star’ status,” Kim said. “If safety really had been a priority, this wouldn’t have happened.”


Reprinted by permission of the Center for Public Integrity.
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