Economy

Government Finds $60 Billion Company Responsible For Deaths Of Four Workers, Fines It $99,000

CREDIT: AP/Jeff Gentner

A DuPont chemical plant in West Virginia

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) blamed the chemical company DuPont for failing to maintain the safety of workers, a failure that it says led to the death of four workers in November.

The plant manufactures the pesticide Lannate in La Porte, Texas. On the day of the accident, a worker opened a vent line for the poisonous gas methyl mercaptan and unexpectedly released the gas into the air. She died, as did the three workers who tried to come to her aid. None of them were wearing protective respirators, OSHA says.

Those workers “would be alive today had their employer, DuPont, taken steps to protect them,” according to the release announcing the end of the investigation. “Four people lost their lives and their families lost loved ones because DuPont did not have proper safety procedures in place,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health David Michaels. “Had the company assessed the dangers involved, or trained their employees on what to do if the ventilation system stopped working, they might have had a chance.”

OSHA cited the company for 11 safety violates and fined it $99,000. The company has a market capitalization of $63.6 billion and made $34.7 billion in revenue last year. OSHA also identified “scores” of upgrades it has to undertake to prevent future accidents at the plant.

But regulators also let the plant and its safety failures slip through the cracks. It hadn’t been inspected by OSHA since 2007, when it was issued two serious violations for safely managing highly hazardous chemicals and fined $1,700 for one and $1,800 for the other, although the latter was later reduced. It was also out of compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency’s hazardous waste management and air emissions standards, and the agency brought enforcement actions for violations in 2012 and 2014, which resulted in $117,375 in penalties. And the plant was cited for violating state law at least two dozen times over the last five years for failures related to safety inspections, keeping equipment in working order, and preventing pollution leaks, some of which resulted in fines of a few thousand dollars.

This is not the first time DuPont has gotten in more serious trouble with regulators, however. The Chemical Safety Board has also inspected accidents at four other DuPont facilities, two of which were fatal, and the company settled a previous case brought by federal prosecutors alleging it violated the Clean Air Act at a plant in Virginia.

It is also not the only workplace where accidents have occurred. More than 4,500 people died on the job in 2013, the most recent numbers. Two years ago, 14 people died in an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, but plenty of other fatal accidents have happened between that one and the one at DuPont’s La Porte plant.

Many of these places never even saw OSHA inspectors. The agency has just 1,955 people inspecting the country’s 8 million workplaces, which means any given plant will only get a federal inspection once every 139 years and a state inspection ones every 79 years.