Preventing Death on the Job

July 30th, 2015 by Phil Mattera

dupont_laporteThe Occupational Safety & Health Administration recently put DuPont on its list of severe violators and proposed fines totaling $273,000 in connection with last year’s chemical leak at a pesticide plant in La Porte, Texas that killed four workers. OSHA called the deaths preventable and accused DuPont of having “a failed safety program.”

This was a severe blow to a company that prides itself on having a “world-class” safety system and which thinks so highly of its skills in this area that it provides safety consulting services to other companies. DuPont expressed disappointment at OSHA’s actions.

The gap between (self) image and reality is nothing new at DuPont. The company’s claims to be a safety leader are not recent measures to address the fallout from the deadly accident in Texas. In his 1984 book America’s Third Revolution: Public Interest and the Private Role, former DuPont CEO Irving Shapiro called the company’s safety record “extraordinary” and made the preposterous claim that its employees “are safer on the job than at home.”

These statements flew in the face of safety problems at DuPont that extended back at least to the 1920s, when numerous workers were poisoned, some fatally, in connection with the production of tetraethyl lead for gasoline.

During the early 1970s, evidence began to emerge of high levels of bladder cancer among DuPont production workers, especially at the Chambers Works in New Jersey. Since at least the 1930s there had been evidence linking beta-nephthylamine (BNA), a chemical used in dye bases, to cancer. Yet the company went on producing BNA at Chambers until 1955, and after it was dropped DuPont went on making benzidine, another carcinogen, for ten more years.

In the years since Shapiro’s book, the safety problems have continued. In 1987 a New Jersey Superior Court jury found that DuPont officials and company doctors deliberately concealed medical records that showed six veteran maintenance workers had asbestos-related diseases linked to their jobs.  Also in 1987, the company agreed to pay fines totaling $11,100 as part of a settlement of OSHA charges relating to record-keeping at plants in Dallas and Niagara Falls, New York.

In 1995 oil company Conoco, then owned by DuPont, agreed to pay $1.6 million to settle OSHA charges related to an explosion and fire the year before that killed a worker at a refinery in Louisiana.

In 1999 OSHA announced that DuPont would pay $70,000 to settle charges that it failed to record more than 100 injury and illness cases at its plant in Seaford, Delaware.

In 2010 OSHA criticized DuPont for exposing employees to hazardous chemicals at its plant in Belle, West Virginia, where a worker had died after a ruptured hose released a large quantity of phosgene gas. The following year, OSHA cited DuPont for dangerous conditions after a contract welder was killed when sparks set off an explosion in a slurry tank at a plant in Buffalo, New York. In 2012 the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board added its criticism of the company in connection with the Buffalo accident.

In short, the accident at La Porte, which had a history of previous violations, is far from an anomaly for DuPont. The only surprising aspect of the story is why OSHA did not come down on the company much harder.

Rena Steinzor, a University of Maryland law professor and author of the book Why Not Jail?, has posted an article criticizing OSHA for not seeking criminal charges against DuPont. The Corporate Crime Reporter notes that OSHA chief David Michaels, asked about Steinzor’s critique at a recent press conference, dismissed her piece but did not explain why the DuPont case did not merit a criminal referral to the Justice Department.

OSHA has long been reluctant to go the criminal route, relying instead on civil proceedings and ridiculously low financial penalties. In its latest Death on the Job report, the AFL-CIO notes that since the agency was created fewer than 100 criminal enforcement cases have been pursued. During this same period there have been more than 390,000 workplace fatalities.

The agency’s willingness to put a large company like DuPont on the severe violators list, which is dominated by smaller firms, especially in the construction industry, is a step forward. But OSHA will need to do a lot more to address the ongoing tragedy of workplace fatalities and disease.

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