Texas fertilizer plant explosion, refinery fire on same day draw attention to workplace safety

by Charles Miller

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 4,693 workers died on the job in 2011, slightly more than in 2010. According to the report 1,937 workers died in transportation incidents; 710 through “contact with objects and equipment”; 681 from “falls, slips [and] trips”; and 419 from “exposure to harmful substances or environments.”

On average, 13 workers a day are killed on the job in the United States and many more are injured. On April 17 this year, 14 people died in an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas. That same day, 300 miles to the east, 12 workers were injured when a fire broke out at the ExxonMobil refinery in Beaumont, Texas. Seven workers suffered severe burns.

This year, for the first time, the Bureau’s fatality report has a separate category for “contract” workers, who may not be afforded the same protections as regular employees. Five hundred forty-two died in 2011, the bureau found, accounting for 12 percent of all fatal injuries. Texas had the highest number of contractor deaths – 56 – followed by Florida (51) and California (42).

“Looking through the BLS data, you see some really simple, easily preventable causes of death: people falling off roofs, people dying in trench cave-ins, people falling off ladders, people dying in confined spaces,” says Tom O’Connor, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, an umbrella organization for a network of nonprofit groups around the country.

OSHA clearly lacks sufficient resources to protect workers adequately. More than 8.1 million workers still are without OSHA coverage. Furthermore, as noted by the AFL-CIO’s 2012”Death on the Job” report, “[a]t its current staffing and inspection levels, it would take federal OSHA 131 years to inspect each workplace under its jurisdiction just once.” For example, records show that OSHA had not inspected the now-demolished Texas fertilizer plant since 1985.

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Michael Heygood, James Craig Orr, Jr. and Eric Pearson were selected to the Super Lawyers List, a Thomson Reuters publication, for the years 2003 through 2013.