Economy

Scrap Metal Facility Where Worker Died Had Never Been Inspected By Safety Regulators

CREDIT: AP

Scrap metal recycling is one of the deadliest industries in America

An Illinois scrap metal recycling company has been fined nearly half a million dollars for various safety violations after a worker was killed when his arm got trapped in a conveyor belt that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) says should have been turned off.

But despite a pattern of violations at other facilities run by the same company, OSHA had never inspected the South Beloit, IL facility prior to the March accident that killed Alfredo Arrendondo, an OSHA spokesman told ThinkProgress after reviewing records for the region.

The newly announced penalties come atop previous violations at other Behr & Sons facilities elsewhere in the state and in neighboring Iowa. The company has received six separate inspections at its facilities in the past 5 years, according to an OSHA press release on the $497,000 fine issued to Behr’s South Beloit, IL facility. As part of that citation, OSHA has deemed the company a severe violator for its pattern of neglect toward worker safety.

“There’s a culture of unsafe work practices at not only this facility but throughout the whole company,” OSHA regional spokesman Scott Allen said in an interview. “So we’ve put these folks into the severe violator program so right now we can inspect any of the plants, not just this particular facility. And they’ll stay on that program until we feel that they’ve not only corrected all those problems but shown a culture change in their safety procedures.”

But OSHA has been starved of the resources it would need to apply that kind of rigorous scrutiny more broadly and proactively. Thanks to budget cuts, there were fewer OSHA inspectors to ensure compliance with federal rules in 2011 than there were in 1981 — even though there are twice as many workplaces to supervise.

With OSHA overstretched, worker safety relies on companies valuing their employees’ health. In the statement announcing the new penalties, OSHA regional administrator Nick Walters said the company “continued the practice of allowing the conveyor to run [at unsafe times] because it increased efficiency.” It did so despite having been cited for similar lapses by OSHA in recent years at other facilities, implying those past penalties had not changed the company’s cost-benefit calculus.

If fines are not an effective deterrent, there are few other tools at OSHA’s disposal. “OSHA’s not in the business of shutting down companies, OSHA’s in the business of protecting workers,” regional spokesman Allen said. “That said, if we find an imminent danger situation, there have been instances where we can get a court order to close a facility.”

“I can’t even fathom a company wanting to put their workers at risk for the sake of profit,” he added.

It’s possible that companies simply assume OSHA inspectors won’t come knocking. A report on 22 state-run workplace safety programs from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) last year found that the typical work site in those states can expect one OSHA visit every 99 years on average. In Texas, where a fertilizer plant explosion killed more than a dozen people and injured another 160 in April of 2013, that number is more like 126 years.

Illinois was not among the states criticized by the GAO report, however, as private-sector OSHA compliance is handled by federal inspectors in the state. The OSHA spokesman also noted that it targets its inspections according to industrial hazards, and the scrap metal recycling business is among the deadliest in the nation.

Scrap metal recycling workers are nearly three times more likely to die on the job than underground miners, and it is the fourth-deadliest profession in the United States, according to statements last year by the chief safety official at the trade group that represents the recycling industry. The only more dangerous industries as of 2013 were private plane piloting, logging, and commercial fishing — and two of those have popular television shows dedicated to documenting the hazards of the work.

“Owners should recognize the fact that injuries are not a part of doing business and start managing their safety program with the same vigor they manage every other element of their business,” Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries safety direct John Gilstrap told American Recycler in 2013.

Safety failures may be extreme in the metal recycling business, but they are by no means limited to that small industry. Counting both injuries and disease-induced fatalities, 150 people died from work-related causes each day in 2012, according to an AFL-CIO analysis. Some workplace hazards that had once been on the decline such as black lung and silicosis are making a comeback.