Workplace safety got plenty of attention last week, from a public radio investigation in Seattle to a series by the Center for Public Integrity that includes plenty of opportunities for localizing.
KUOW’s John Ryan conducted hit the topic from all sides, with a five-part series on workplace safety in Washington. His story selection ranges from stats-directed investigations to features focusing on unique cases.
Chris Hamby did a two-part investigation in the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News on OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Programs, which exempt “model workplaces” from regular inspections (Part 1, Part 2).
Over the course of his eight-month investigation, Hamby pored over thousands of pages of documents which revealed, among other things, that “Since 2000, at least 80 workers have died at these sites, and investigators found serious safety violations in at least 47 of these cases.”
Workers at plants billed as the nation’s safest have died in preventable explosions, chemical releases and crane accidents. They have been pulled into machinery or asphyxiated. Investigators, called in because of deaths, have uncovered underlying safety problems — failure to follow recognized safety practices, inadequate inspections and training, lack of proper protective gear, unguarded machinery, improper handling of hazardous chemicals.
Yet these companies have rarely faced heavy fines or expulsion from the program. In death cases in which OSHA found at least one violation, VPP companies ultimately paid an average of about $8,000 in fines. And at least 65 percent of sites where a worker has died since 2000 remain in VPP today.
The program, with its emphasis on cooperation between regulators and industry, began under the Reagan administration and greatly expanded under the most recent Bush regime. There are some success stories, Hamby found, but he also uncovered a hearty helping of dirty laundry. Those included preventable deaths traced to OSHA violations, failures to self-police and an emphasis on expanding program participation at the expense of quality and safety.
In the second installment, Hamby spotlights oil refineries to illustrate what became a familiar pattern.
Recognition of “model workplace” status, missed opportunities to detect and fix hazards, a serious mishap or fatal accident, detection of safety violations and, ultimately, continuation of the government’s stamp of approval.
Hamby backs up these strong words with even stronger numbers. Here’s just one sample:
During 2009 and 2010, at least 21 of 55 fires at refineries falling under federal jurisdiction occurred at VPP sites, an iWatch News analysis of regulatory and news media reports found. VPP sites make up about 30 percent of these refineries, so these government-recognized sites have experienced more than their proportionate share of fires.
Reporters have already produced local versions of Hamby’s story throughout the country, particularly in Florida and Louisiana.