New scrutiny of worker safety excludes some chemical plants

OSHA, targeting preventable incidents in dangerous industry, exempts ‘model workplaces’

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Eastman Chemical Company's plant in Kingsport, Tenn., is a government-recognized "model workplace."

Chris Hamby/iWatch News

Worries about fires, explosions and chemical releases prompted the federal agency in charge of workplace safety on Wednesday to expand a special inspection program focusing on the nation’s chemical plants. Regulators believe the industry is particularly vulnerable to such hazards, meriting the closer attention.

Yet some plants will continue to be shielded from the special inspections, despite past worker deaths, because of their status as “model workplaces.”

“Far too many workers are injured and killed in preventable incidents at chemical facilities around the country,” said David Michaels, the head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, in announcing the broadening of the pilot program, which began in 2009.

Michaels said inspectors would “cover chemical facilities nationwide to ensure that all required measures are taken to protect workers.”

But the agency opted to exempt sites that participate in its Voluntary Protection Programs, known as VPP. As iWatch News has reported, more than 80 workers have died since 2000 at these sites OSHA has deemed “model workplaces” – from power plants to paper mills and shipyards. 

Companies, however, have rarely faced serious consequences, even when inspectors identified safety violations related to the fatal accident.

The exemption from regular inspections, including those conducted under special emphasis programs, has particular resonance for companies in the chemical manufacturing industry, which is both the target of the new initiative and the largest industry sector in VPP. 

At least 18 of the deaths at VPP sites since 2000 occurred at chemical plants.

Three of these deaths occurred at two plants owned by Eastman Chemical Company – cases highlighted in a recent story by iWatch News. Regulators deemed two of them preventable and issued violations to the company, but both sites remain in VPP and beyond the reach of the newly expanded program.

Michaels said in Wednesday’s announcement that inspections conducted under the pilot program uncovered similar dangers to what the agency found in its program targeting oil refineries. 

Under that initiative, too, OSHA exempted VPP sites, but, as iWatch News has reported, seven workers have died at these off-limits refineries since the program began in 2007.

An OSHA spokesperson said the exemptions were “an incentive and a matter of OSHA policy.”

Read more about 'model workplaces' here.

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