At an Ohio chemical plant, an explosion launched pieces of metal that struck and killed a worker. At a Pennsylvania steel mill, equipment crushed a worker to death. At an Oklahoma oil refinery, a flash fire fatally burned a worker.
Each death occurred at a plant deemed a “model workplace” by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but none of them appeared in the database the agency uses to monitor its Voluntary Protection Programs, known as VPP.
They aren’t the only ones. The Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News identified at least 15 deaths since 2000 that weren’t included in OSHA’s database, which the agency provided after an open records request. OSHA confirmed that the deaths should have been included but couldn’t explain why they weren’t.
“The inclusion of fatalities in the database didn’t always occur as it should have,” OSHA said in a statement. “We are continuing to strengthen the procedures for the reporting and tracking of fatalities at VPP sites.”
In recent years, the agency has issued memos to regional officials stressing the importance of documenting and following up on fatal accidents at VPP sites. Soon after being appointed in 2009, the agency’s No. 2 official, Jordan Barab, noted that there were some deaths missing and talked with others at OSHA about it, he said in an interview with iWatch News. “I said, ‘Listen, if we’re going to do this, we need to do it; we need to have our database up to date on things like this,’ ” he said.
iWatch News identified the deaths by cross-referencing two databases OSHA maintains – one containing information on inspections and another with information about VPP sites.
The list of 15 deaths includes two sites that have multiple fatal accidents missing from the database: Eastman Chemical Company in Longview, Texas, and Appleton Papers Inc. in Roaring Spring, Pa. From the time Appleton Papers joined VPP in 2001 until it voluntarily withdrew in 2007, the site had three fatal accidents – two of which didn’t make it into OSHA’s VPP database – and its injury rates were worse than those of its industry peers in almost every year. The company didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Three of the deaths that didn’t appear in OSHA’s database occurred at oil refineries. Worried about what the agency has determined to be widespread hazards throughout the industry, OSHA has begun targeting refineries for inspections in a special enforcement program. Those in VPP, however, are exempt from these inspections. As iWatch News has reported, at least seven workers have died at these off-limits refineries since the initiative began in 2007, but all of these sites remain “model workplaces” today.
OSHA began a similar enforcement program in 2009 focusing on the chemical manufacturing industry, which is the largest sector in VPP. At least four of the deaths not included in OSHA’s database occurred at chemical plants. These sites are all still in VPP, placing them beyond the reach of the initiative.