April 18, 2013

Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion Came After Limited Federal Safety Oversight of Plant; U.S. Safety Budget Hasn’t Risen to Match Increase in Facilities

Statement of Keith Wrightson, Worker Safety and Health Advocate for Public Citizen's Congress Watch Division

The West Fertilizer Company facility that exploded in a deadly blast Wednesday evening had not been inspected by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in at least 10 years. While we leave it to investigators to determine what exactly happened, we already know that this facility and ones like it operate with very little oversight, and that this is a problem.

Records show that the facility in West, Texas, owned by Adair Grain Incorporated, has not been inspected by OSHA in the past 10 years.
In the past five years, only two Texas facilities in the same classification – that produce fertilizer using ammonia – have been inspected by OSHA, records show. The agency, with a budget of roughly $568 million, lacks the resources to regularly inspect these types of facilities, including the many with high danger levels. Often facilities do not see an inspector for decades at a time.

While OSHA’s budget had increased slightly in the past several years, it was recently reduced yet again by budget sequestration, which means fewer inspectors to monitor facilities like the West Fertilizer Company. Small budgets also make it even harder for the agency to issue new safety standards. The agency’s budget is similar to what it was several decades ago, but the size of the economy – and the number and complexity of workplaces to inspect – has grown tremendously.

Though total occupational deaths are far lower today than they were decades ago, more than 4,000 workers still die every year on the job in the United States, most in incidents that could have been prevented. Last night’s tragic explosion in Texas is a reminder of the work still ahead to make our nation’s workplaces safer.

Devoting only a miniscule portion of our budget to protecting workers is a policy choice – and it’s the wrong one.