Business Columns & Blogs

Workers die, we soon forget

Workers Memorial Day was commemorated by a ceremony with the state’s Department of Labor and Industries a month ago.

It was a grimly appropriate bit of timing, given that it occurred within weeks of multiple-fatality workplace accidents at an oil refinery in Anacortes, at a coal mine in West Virginia, and on an oil-drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico.

Those who commemorate Memorial Day this weekend worry that the sacrifices made by Americans who have fallen in battle will be forgotten.

There’s a similar worry that – for all the attention given to workplace safety because of recent high- profile disasters – their painful lessons may have faded from memory by the time the next Workers Memorial Day rolls around.

Right now, the disasters are generating investigations, hearings, lawsuits and calls for legislation. They may produce some short-term results in the form of heightened awareness, new regulations, increased inspections, and greater vigilance and attention to detail.

“Across the board, we see increased enforcement activities by all agencies, along with an increase in the penalties (and) fines for not being in compliance,” said Tom Odegaard, president and executive director of the Seattle-based Evergreen Safety Council.

Some of the increased enforcement is tied to recent disasters, Odegaard said. But the Obama administration also has set a new tone at the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Mine Safety and Health Administration, he said.

“They are moving forward at a pretty fast pace to increase enforcement of existing rules as well as increase the penalty amounts across the U.S.,” Odegaard said.

Federal and state regulators now play close attention to record keeping, training in areas such as combustible dust, crane safety and workplace ergonomics, Odegaard said.

In Washington, the Labor and Industries department and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board are investigating the April 2 explosion at the Tesoro refinery that killed seven workers. It’s the deadliest industrial accident in the 37 years Labor and Industries has enforced workplace safety laws, officials say.

The slow pace of that investigation, however, is contributing to the worry that the Tesoro explosion will be eclipsed by other news.

We like immediate answers: What went wrong? Who’s to blame?

But immediate answers are often hard to come by (or wrong if they’re found).

It wasn’t until the middle of May that the heat exchangers where the blast occurred could be dismantled for inspection. That work had been held up over concern about asbestos in the area and the stability of structures holding those units up.

In general, however, workplace safety has improved somewhat over the past decade.

From 112 deaths in 1998 because of injuries, acute chemical exposure, workplace homicides and suicides, and motor-vehicle accidents (deaths resulting from long-term exposure to substances such as asbestos and silica aren’t included), the total declined to 73 for last year, up one from 2008.

The long-term trend can be attributed to greater emphasis on safety in industries such as logging and construction, improved safety practices, regulation, even the recession (construction fatalities in 2009 were less than half of 2008’s total).

But the trend line looks more like a mountain range than a smooth slope, and 2010 could prove to be one of the spikes on that graph. So far this year, the state has recorded 34 workplace fatalities (including the deaths at Tesoro).

How could the deaths of seven people, let alone multiple dozens of workplace deaths in one year, fade from public memory?

Unfortunately, it happens. Attention wanes. Older events are overtaken by more recent developments.

For all the furor over the environmental damage that may be caused by oil that continues to leak into the Gulf of Mexico from that oil-drilling platform explosion, what’s been obscured is that the incident began with the deaths of 11 workers in the initial explosion.

So, what should we do? Expect constant vigilance and attention to safety?

That would help, but that’s asking more of people than they’re likely capable of. In the absence of bad news, minds begin to wan-der, complacency sets in, vigilance gives way to rou-tine … until the next headline-grabbing incident jars people into renewed awareness.

How about more regulations and inspections?

Those are certainly coming, and they might help. But remember, Washington’s oil refineries were already going through a “special emphasis” program at the behest of the federal government. Tesoro’s Anacortes refinery was operating under an enforcement and compliance agreement that resulted from an inspection and citations issued by state regulators a year ago. The national emphasis program resulted from a 2005 explosion at a Texas refinery that killed 15.

How about huge fines on companies found in violation of safety rules, contributing to workplace injury and death?

That might help focus the mind, particularly in cases such as the Gulf oil platform. If preliminary reports are at all credible, practices and preparedness went well beyond careless and slipshod.

But those fines, even when they stick, tend to be reactive and come well after the incidents. That isn’t of much help for, or consolation to, the victims.

It’s going to take all of those, plus constant improvements in safety technology (and making sure they’re implemented) and maybe a dozen other factors as well. Another round of safety posters and lectures, another round of hearings to lambaste regulators and company executives (even if they deserve it), another stack of rules won’t do it alone.

Nor, sadly, will exhorting workers to be constantly aware of safety hazards on the job. We should be aware, but human nature says we won’t be. As we are all too often reminded, workplace danger is ever present, even though attention to it often isn’t.

Bill Virgin’s column on business and economics appears Sunday in The News Tribune. He can be reached at