A part of a series,”Mannequin Workplaces, Imperiled Workers,”by the middle for Public Integrity’s iWatch News. The primary article is here.

On a December night in 2009, something went improper with boiler B28 at Valero’s oil refinery in Texas Metropolis, Texas. Technician Tommy Manis and his co-staff weren’t certain just what it was. That they had tried more than a dozen occasions to get the boiler began. They weren’t aware of the dangerous ranges of gas building up inside, ready to ignite.

Manis had by no means worked on B28 before. His job took him to different parts of the plant, so he may not have recognized the boiler’s history: In the course of the previous 15 months, there had been two explosions inside its hulking furnace. After the second, Valero decided gas had built up and ignited. Now, with Manis and his co-staff nearby, gasoline again flowed unchecked into the boiler.

Oil refineries are inherently harmful, and the trade’s file of failing to curb hazards prompted the federal authorities in 2007 to start out subjecting them to extra intense scrutiny in a special enforcement program. But Tommy Manis and his wife, Laura, trusted that this refinery was safer. The federal Occupational Safety and Well being Administration, the nation’s chief overseer of worker security, had formally certified the Valero refinery as a “mannequin workplace” with an exemplary file and an impeccable safety 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 47 of those cases, inspectors discovered serious safety violations and,sometimes,tragedies that could 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 record of failing to curb hazards, practically one in three refineries is off limits to those inspections. (Learn more right here)

– No less than seven employees have died at refineries which might be off limits to inspectors within the special inspection program concentrating on the refining industry. Similar perils have led to particular scrutiny at workplaces in other dangerous industries – however not for “model workplaces” in OSHA’s “Voluntary Protection Packages.”

– Many oil refineries within the Voluntary Protection Packages experience the identical security issues plaguing other refineries. iWatch News recognized 55 fires throughout 2009 and 2010 at refineries underneath federal jurisdiction.Of these, about 40 percent occurred at VPP refineries.

– Even when workers die and inspectors find safety violations, “model workplaces” usually face minimal consequences and keep the special designation. At the least sixty five percent of workplaces where a fatal accident occurred stay in the Voluntary Protection Programs immediately.

‘Model workplaces’ not all the time so safe

About this collection

Over eight months, the center for Public Integrity’s iWatch Information examined the nation’s “mannequin workplaces” and the fatal lapses that generally led to staff’ deaths. This series of tales relies on 1000’s of pages of authorities documents and inspection stories; multiple databases of the federal Occupational Security and Health Administration; and interviews with current and former OSHA officials, union representatives, firm officials, accident victims’ families and workplace security and well being specialists. Among the challenges in piecing collectively the story of OSHA’s Voluntary Safety Program: The agency’s inconsistent injury and sickness data, incomplete information on fatalities, and heavy redaction of case information obtained beneath the freedom of data Act.

This story was written and reported by Chris Hamby, with contributions from senior reporter Jim Morris, as well as Mona Iskander of PBS’ “Must Know” Television program, which aired a version of this story.

But does it work?

By Chris Hamby

July 7, 2011

iWatch reporter Chris Hamby is taking questions via Twitter on this sequence. Send him your questions utilizing the hashtag below.

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It was a “Star” site within the agency’s Voluntary Safety Programs — a distinction that, for Valero, conveyed more than just bragging rights. OSHA exempts members of this club, often known as VPP, from some inspections, including the particular enforcement program concentrating on refineries and similar initiatives designed to handle hazards in some of the nation’s most dangerous industries.

Many of the nation’s largest employers covet the VPP stamp of approval — a mark now held by more than 2,four hundred workplaces across the nation, from sawmills and shipyards to power plants and textile mills. Participation in this system helps scale back accidents and illnesses and lowers staff’ compensation prices, they are saying. For the Valero refinery in Texas City, it also meant a break on native taxes.

The VPP flag can attract and reassure workers. A pink, white and blue image of the government’s approval, it flies at nine of Valero’s refineries. Manis had acquired T-shirts, pens and Christmas ornaments stamped with the program’s logo — gifts from his employer. The refinery’s repute, his spouse recalled, had drawn Manis to use for the job in the primary place: “He thought Valero was the cream-of-the-crop plant. It did not blow up. It was safe.”

That December night time, while in her car, 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 occurring. “There was useless silence on the phone, and that i knew,” she recalled.

Investigators would later decide that Tommy’s death might have been prevented. Valero hadn’t adequately investigated the primary boiler explosion or taken correct steps to prevent it from recurring, OSHA found. The company determined that the corporate hadn’t adequately trained staff, evaluated dangers or ensured the problematic boiler conformed to widely accepted security requirements.

Though Valero blames the companies that manufactured and put in the boiler in an ongoing lawsuit, OSHA found fault with Valero, issuing a severe violation and highlighting a half-dozen safety issues. In a June 2010 settlement with the agency, Valero agreed to repair problems at the refinery however didn’t admit to violating safety laws. The company paid a $4,500 positive.

When the boiler exploded, Tommy Manis turned the fourth worker at a VPP “Star” refinery to die because the special inspection progam began in mid-2007. Since his death, three extra staff have died at one of these authorities-recognized refineries. But all five plants the place the seven staff died retain OSHA’s stamp of approval right this moment, an investigation by the center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News has found. Thus they remain past the reach of the agency’s inspection program designed to guard those who work in one of many nation’s most dangerous industries.

Fires, explosions — and exemptions

An identical story line has performed out elsewhere: Recognition of “mannequin office” standing, missed alternatives to detect and repair hazards, a severe mishap or fatal accident, detection of safety violations and, ultimately, continuation of the government’s stamp of approval.

To make sure, there are success tales within the ranks of VPP members — damage charges lowered and employees’ compensation prices lowered, safety classes discovered and disseminated. Even lots of the program’s critics consider it may work with enough oversight. Like different corporations in this system, Valero factors to a safer workplace and improved employee engagement as the primary benefits of participation.

However company documents and data and interviews with former OSHA officials, union representatives and experts reveal one other side to the program — preventable accidents, unaddressed security problems and overstretched regulators.

Membership in VPP exempts employers from inspections except there was a serious accident, a formal complaint, or an instance in which OSHA learns of a particular potential hazard.

That exemption is maybe nowhere extra beneficial than for sites in industries that find themselves in OSHA’s crosshairs. OSHA’s latest deal with oil refineries affords a clear example of the agency’s strategy: Figuring out industries the place issues appear to be widespread, charging inspectors with policing them, however inserting some websites off-limits for particular inspections. Roughly 30 “mannequin workplace” refineries are off-limits to inspectors below the program.

Not only have staff died at VPP refineries, those plants seem to have some of the same problems plaguing the bigger refining trade.

Fires are a main concern. Refineries are gas factories that use extremely flammable chemicals. Even small fires can be indicators of how effectively refiners are managing hazards that may lead to catastrophic explosions or toxic chemical releases. Rules require companies to evaluate potential dangers, test tools, and investigate mishaps as part of what is named “course of safety management” — the focus of the OSHA enforcement initiative focusing on refineries.

Throughout 2009 and 2010, no less than 21 of fifty five fires at refineries falling below federal jurisdiction occurred at VPP sites, an iWatch News evaluation of regulatory and news media experiences found. VPP websites make up about 30 % of these refineries, so these government-recognized sites have experienced more than their proportionate share of fires.

Some refineries are in one of the 25 states that run their own workplace safety businesses, which the federal authorities requires to be a minimum of as efficient as OSHA. All of the state businesses have a model of VPP. Many of those states have adopted the particular enforcement program, though data on these inspections are tougher to trace.

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

Same firm, different scrutiny

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

At refineries that inspectors can visit as a part of the particular enforcement initiative, they ceaselessly have found serious security violations.

One firm — Marathon Petroleum Company — offers an example. It owns 4 refineries below federal jurisdiction — two in VPP and two not in VPP. During inspections carried out under the emphasis program in 2007 and 2008, inspectors proposed $479,000 in fines for sixty one violations mixed at two of the corporate’s refineries, in Texas City and Canton, Ohio.

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

However as VPP members, Marathon’s two different refineries below federal jurisdiction –in Robinson, In poor health., and Garyville, La. — are exempt from related inspections. Even as 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 found 5 serious violations. Amongst other things, OSHA mentioned, Marathon had failed to handle some hazards in the unit where the accident occurred, and the company had failed to research earlier comparable incidents. OSHA officials recognized the case as a priority beneath its Enhanced Enforcement Coverage, that means the agency had decided “there may be purpose to consider that the employer may be indifferent to its occupational safety and well being obligations.”

Nearly each problem investigators alleged was a violation of the method security administration commonplace — the identical normal that was the main focus of the emphasis program and can be the idea of many of the citations at Marathon’s two non-VPP refineries.

In response to the OSHA report, one Marathon official “requested about the status of VPP and the way OSHA views them since that they had a fatality.” The company had little to fear, it turned out. The next 12 months, 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 Department said Marathon took steps to forestall future similar issues.

The Garyville refinery has additionally experienced fatal accidents. Since 2002, three workers have died there, although none of the accidents resulted in citations for Marathon. The refinery stays a “Star” site at present.

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

Extra recently, an accident in August 2009 at ExxonMobil’s Joliet, In poor health., refinery — a VPP site — injured two staff and launched a highly toxic chemical referred to 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 establish hazards to failing to check equipment and proper deficiencies — associated to course of safety, the topic of the continuing emphasis program. OSHA later agreed to delete one of the violations, and the company paid a $9,000 positive.

‘A matter below dialogue’

The government’s special scrutiny of refineries stemmed from tragedy. In March 2005, an explosion killed 15 people and injured 180 more at BP’s Texas City refinery, simply a short drive from the place Manis would die 4 years later. The U.S. Chemical Security Board, the unbiased federal agency that investigated the BP disaster, in 2007 urged OSHA to start a “nationwide emphasis program” that may give special scrutiny to refiners in an try and curb hazards earlier than catastrophe strikes.

OSHA shared issues concerning the industry. “As a result of the Texas Metropolis accident, OSHA began evaluating its data on fatalities and catastrophes and determined that refineries skilled extra of these issues than the subsequent three business sectors mixed,” Richard Fairfax, who headed the agency’s enforcement programs, instructed a congressional subcommittee n 2007.

OSHA took the board’s recommendation and began the emphasis program later that year, focusing on course of security management — the control of dangers associated with using extremely hazardous substances that would result in fires, explosions or chemical releases. The agency deliberate to inspect every oil refinery underneath federal jurisdiction.

Each refinery, that’s, besides these in VPP.

The trade has been among VPP’s strongest supporters. The present chairperson of the affiliation representing VPP participants works for Valero spinoff NuStar Energy. Two of the program’s staunchest supporters in Congress — Sens. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., and Mary Landrieu, D-La. — acquired more than a half-million dollars combined in contributions from the oil and gasoline business since 2005, in response to knowledge from the center for Responsive Politics. General, the business spent nearly $146 million to lobby the federal government in 2010.

Representatives for 2 oil industry trade 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 ship OSHA chief David Michaels a letter final 12 months, urging continued assist for VPP. “There is no such thing as a want for OSHA to revisit and inspect VPP worksites as a part of the Refinery Course of Safety National Emphasis Program,” Drevna wrote.

However, to OSHA, that is not so clear. “Now we have had some fatalities in VPP refineries, so that is one thing [i.e., the Nationwide Emphasis Program] we’re nonetheless attempting to determine,” mentioned Jordan Barab, the agency’s No. 2 official. Asked if the refineries beyond the reach of the current emphasis program are safer than these that are not, Barab mentioned, “One would hope so.”

To ensure they’re, he added, the agency is considering inspecting a number of VPP refineries. The company has the authority to take action, but there are different potential challenges, among them a scarcity of assets. The possibility of conducting intensive inspections at VPP refineries, then, is “a matter beneath discussion,” Barab stated.

The refiners’ association, in its letter to Michaels final year, defended the exemption from special inspections. “VPP sites are exempt from programmed inspections as a result of the program has and continues to meet its purpose to foster a collaborative surroundings between management, labor, and OSHA,” wrote Drevna, the affiliation’s president. “NPRA members consider 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, is not the only such ongoing program from which VPP websites are exempt. Since 2002, another OSHA emphasis program has focused workplaces where hazardous equipment might trigger critical damage or dying.

The initiative focuses on imposing a number of specific safety requirements at workplaces in a spread of industries, together with paper mills, sawmills, food manufacturers and metallic fabricators — all amongst the biggest industries in VPP.

iWatch Information recognized 4 fatalities at VPP websites in the course of the past decade in these particular industries that resulted in OSHA finding violations of those specific standards. Not less than eight other fatal accidents at VPP websites concerned the varieties of hazards outlined in the enforcement program.

Other emphasis packages from which VPP websites are exempt focus on correcting hazards at federal agency websites or ferreting out inaccurate or fraudulent injury and sickness recordkeeping.

A comparatively new program raises similar issues to these offered by the refinery initiative. OSHA is within the early phases of an emphasis program targeting comparable dangers — those offered by means of extremely hazardous substances — at chemical plants. With greater than 250 websites underneath federal jurisdiction, chemical manufacturing is the largest trade in VPP, and all of those websites are exempt from inspections below the ongoing program.

‘No person was wanting over their shoulder’

By the point Tommy Manis was assigned to work on the troublesome boiler at Valero’s Texas Metropolis refinery in December 2009, two of the company’s other refineries had already been inspected under the OSHA emphasis program. Inspectors had discovered a combined whole of more than 30 violations and issued more than $200,000 in fines to Valero’s refineries in Port Arthur, Texas, and Delaware City, Del. (OSHA agreed to reduce the severity of the violations and minimize fines within the Delaware Metropolis case, and Valero has since offered the refinery. Valero is still contesting the penalties in the Port Arthur case.)

Some imagine that OSHA’s findings might have raised pink flags. When the final of those violations had been announced in June 2009 — less than six months earlier than Manis’ loss of life –George Washington College Faculty of Public Health lecturer and former OSHA official Celeste Monforton raised considerations on a public well being weblog: “It makes me marvel whether similar violations … can be discovered on the ‘inspection-exempt’ Valero websites? In spite of everything, it is identical employer, the identical board of directors, the identical government crew and presumably the same safety insurance policies and procedures at its sites.”

Valero spokesman Invoice Day stated there may be a company-huge safety policy that is implemented at every site. “Security is equally essential in any respect of our refineries,” he stated. Ultimately, he said, the company aims to have all of its refineries in VPP. “This can be a business that has to operate safely so as to attract one of the best employees.”

Valero, in its lawsuit in opposition to corporations that made and installed the boiler, states that, due to the “defective package deal boiler system,” “Valero suffered damages.” Because Texas workers’ compensation legal guidelines may shield Valero, Laura Manis’ lawsuit also targets the manufacturers. However she and her lawyer, Gary Riebschlager, blame Valero for the deadly blast.

After the sooner explosions, Riebschlager argues, Valero tried to fix the boiler on a budget and get it back into service shortly. “All they needed to do was repair it right the primary time,” he mentioned. “However they didn’t as a result of they knew that no one was wanting over their shoulder.” Once corporations qualify for VPP, he added, “they know that OSHA’s not coming in.”

In Might 2009 — two months after the second explosion and seven months earlier than the one that killed Manis — OSHA officials had been at the refinery, conducting an on-site evaluation to determine 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 course of,” an abbreviated evaluate reserved for websites that the company felt had demonstrated excellence.

The analysis report made no point out of the boiler.

In a press release, the Labor Department said the abbreviated assessment was “unrelated” to the fatal explosion and had targeted on necessities for participation in VPP. “The required programs and processes had been in place at the time of the VPP on-site evaluation,” the department mentioned.

It’s removed from clear, in fact, that aggressive policing by OSHA would have prevented the explosion. Even an intensive inspection like those conducted underneath the emphasis program is no guarantee that a site is drawback-free.

But Kim Nibarger, a security official with the United Steelworkers, mentioned he sees the Valero accident as an example of larger problems. The explosion, he said, offers extra evidence that refineries in VPP aren’t higher at managing severe hazards than their non-VPP counterparts, and that the exemption from emphasis program inspections is “trigger for concern.”

The family’s lawyer, Byron Buchanan, said interviews with staff who have been at the accident scene, together with different evidence, indicated that Rodriguez was overcome by hydrogen sulfide as he and other workers fled a leak of the toxic gasoline. This gasoline, a well known hazard at oil refineries, also killed a worker at Valero’s Texas Metropolis refinery in 1998 — three years before the positioning was authorised into VPP.

Valero spokesman Day acknowledged that there was a hydrogen sulfide leak but said the reason for Rodriguez’s demise wasn’t yet clear. In courtroom filings, the company denied allegations of gross negligence.

Rodriguez’s employer, Koch Specialty Plant Services, did not respond to requests for remark. In court docket filings, Koch mentioned its liability is limited “as a result of responsible third events could have prompted or contributed to” Rodriguez’ loss of life.

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