Upton Sinclair Memorial Lecture Examines Preventable Deaths

Posted June 22, 2012

On Tuesday, June 19, at AIHce 2012, Chris Hamby of the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, DC, gave the 12th Annual Upton Sinclair Memorial Lecture for Outstanding EHS Reporting. In a presentation titled “Preventable Deaths at ‘Model Workplaces’: Finding Unexpected Stories on One of the Most Overlooked Beats in Journalism,” Hamby discussed his eight-month examination of OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP). OSHA considers workplaces on its VPP list to be among the safest in the nation, and work sites in VPP are exempt from some OSHA inspections. The series resulting from Hamby’s investigation is called “Model Workplaces, Imperiled Workers.”
 
Hamby told the stories of Tommy Manis, a technician killed in a boiler explosion in 2009 at Valero’s oil refinery in Texas City, Texas; Rob Hackley, a mechanic who suffered second- and third-degree burns over two-thirds of his body in an explosion in 2005 at a Tropicana juice processing plant in Bradenton, Fla.; Wiley Sherburne, a plant electrician who was killed in a fire caused by combustible dust in 2011 at the Hoeganaes Corp. metal powder plant in Gallatin, Tenn; and Scott Manning, who died at Eastman Chemical Company’s Kingsport, Tenn. plant in 2004 after a preventable leak released hot, toxic chemicals into his face.  “I try never to lose sight [of these individual stories],” Hamby said. “The lives of people are the heart of the story.”
 
Using files, records and data that he obtained from OSHA under the Freedom of Information Act, Hamby found that between 2000 and 2011, at least 80 workers died at VPP workplaces; in many cases, OSHA inspectors found serious safety violations, but these were often of little consequence for the companies in question. “At least 65 percent of those sites remain in VPP today,” Hamby said. “OSHA almost never kicked out a site, even when it found out a worker had died there in a preventable accident.”
 
During his investigation, he also found at least 15 deaths at VPP sites that OSHA had missed. In a statement, OSHA responded, “The inclusion of fatalities in the database didn’t always occur as it should have. We are continuing to strengthen the procedures for the reporting and tracking of fatalities at VPP sites.”
 
Hamby urged the occupational health and safety professionals in attendance to take their stories to reporters: “Unfortunately, there isn’t much of this work being done today. I’m continually amazed at lack of [stories on] worker safety and health.”
 
Hamby wrapped up his lecture by providing attendees with tips on “getting through to a reporter:” “Tell them a story,” he said. “Show them how someone is affected. Try and keep it jargon-free; imagine you’re talking to the reporter’s audience,” Hamby advised. “Get communication going, because often, these stories are too important to be left untold.”