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The West, Texas, OSHA fines: Just a slap on the wrist?

We wrote last week about the fines imposed on the parent company of the West, Texas, fertilizer plant whose April explosion that killed 15 and injured more than 300. We said that it sent a message that neglecting workers’ safety would not be tolerated, but that when compared to the value of the lives lost, the penalty was paltry. 

The Dallas Morning News agreed, even using the same word – paltry – in its critical editorial published over the weekend.

“That’s a paltry penalty for Adair Grain, owner of the West Fertilizer Co. plant, where the explosion occurred. As this newspaper has documented for months, West Fertilizer endangered its workers and the adjacent town with lax security, inadequate fire-suppression measures and abysmal disaster preparations inside a warehouse processing annually up to 2,400 tons of explosive ammonium nitrate fertilizer. The blast killed 15 and injured hundreds,” the editorial said

“Still, it’s important to send a message. Other small businesses handling hazardous chemicals must understand that severe consequences will befall anyone who disregards federal and state safety rules.”

The Morning News posted on its blog today a comparison of how the West, Texas, penalty stacks up against other workplace disasters. It analyzed OSHA’s 56,800 fatality/catastrophe inspections since 2001. 

“Many of the top 25 fines in OSHA’s history are large industrial explosions, usually resulting in multiple deaths,” wrote the Morning News’ Eric Holmberg. “The West explosion, which killed 15 people and injured 300, however, is nowhere close to OSHA’s five largest fines.”

OSHA’s five largest fines:

1. 2005 BP Texas City explosion, killed 15, injured 170: $84 million in proposed fines

2. 2010 Connecticut power plant explosion, killed six, injured 50: $16.6 million in total proposed fines

3. 1991 IMC Fertilizer/Angus Chemical explosion, killed eight, injured 120: $11.5 million in proposed fines

4. 2008 Imperial Sugar explosion, killed 13, hospitalized 40: $8.8 million in proposed fines

5. 1995 Samsung Guam employee fell from high elevation, killed one: $8.3 million in proposed fines

“In fact, OSHA fined West Fertilizer 70 percent of the maximum allowed by law for the number and severity of violations alleged, $118,300 out of a maximum $168,000 fine,” Holmberg wrote.

The $118,300 fine puts the West explosion on a similar level as other workplace tragedies as far as the dollar amount, but nothing to the same scale in terms of injuries and fatalities.

Holmberg lists five similarly-sized fines for comparison.

1. 2004 Bilfinger Berger Civil, Inc. crane accident, killed four: $280,000 in proposed fines

2. 2001 Motiva Enterprises explosion, killed one, injured six: $259,000 in proposed fines

3. 2011 Bath Iron Works fall hazards, killed none: $171,300 in proposed fines

4. 1995 Napp Technologies explosion, killed five, injured eight: $127,000 in proposed fines, which would’ve been larger, according to OSHA, if not for a technicality

5. 1997 Qualicon Corporation drownings, killed four: $125,000 in proposed fines

As this weekend’s editorial said:

“What emerges from this scenario is a pattern of shortcuts, set-asides and willful decisions by the plant management not to address safety and security measures that would have reduced dangers and put West Fertilizer in compliance with state and federal regulations. We don’t want to be callous to the company’s loss … But a town now lies in ruins because of this company’s laxity and bad decision-making.” 

That’s why the Occupational Safety and Health Act – the law that created OSHA – must be amended to allow the agency to impose a fine greater than $7,000 for a serious safety violation. The agency must be able to issue fines that will truly act as a deterrent to unsafe working conditions.

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