We Need Protection from Industrial Hazards in Our Communities

fire after explosion in West, Texas

On Wednesday, a fire at the West Fertilizer Co. in West, TX, caused an explosion so powerful it registered 2.1 on the Richter scale and leveled significant parts of this rural community.  As many as 15 people died and around 200 were injured, many gravely.  We still do not know what caused the explosion or whether it could have been prevented with better safety practices and regulatory oversight.

The people of West, Texas probably assumed that the facility had been regularly checked for safety.  Tragically, this was not the case.

In fact, the West Fertilizer Co. filed a risk management plan (RMP) with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2006 and updated it in 2011. The RMP assured government officials that there was little risk of fire or explosion at the facility. But EPA apparently never followed up to check if that was true. (Read more about risk management plans in our related blog post.) And the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the agency charged with ensuring that workplaces are safe, had not inspected the West Fertilizer plant since 1985

OSHA has a budget of just $568 million and is responsible for the safety of 8 million workplaces across the country. Under sequestration, its budget will be cut by 8.2 percent. Its resources are stretched very thin; for example, in Texas, there are just 98 workplace safety and health inspectors and more than 573,000 workplaces (some of which are exempt from inspection because they have fewer than 10 employees). In FY 2011, inspectors conducted 4,024 inspections in the state.

OSHA does not have the necessary resources to ensure that workplaces are safe. And when the agency does attempt to establish more protective safety standards, it is often stymied by industry opposition and delays in the regulatory review process. It should not take a tragedy like the explosion in West, TX, to remind us of the importance of workplace safety inspections and enforcement. 

Image by flickr user The Bay Area's News Station, used under a Creative Commons license

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