Last night, a huge explosion ripped through West, Texas, a small town near Waco, killing somewhere between five and 15 people and injuring hundreds. While criminal activity hasn’t been ruled out, the New York Times has reported that the fire began at a fertilizer plant:
It began with a smaller fire at the plant, West Fertilizer, just off Interstate 35, about 20 miles north of Waco that was attended by local volunteer firefighters, said United States Representative Bill Flores. “The fire spread and hit some of these tanks that contain chemicals to treat the fertilizer,” Mr. Flores said, “and there was an explosion which caused wide damage.”
It’s impossible to know at this point whether unsafe workplace conditions were a direct cause of this disaster, but we do know that it was cited for failing to obtain or qualify for a permit in 2006 after a complaint of a strong ammonia smell, a smell that was reported to be “very bad last night.” The plant hasn’t been inspected in the past five years, and in fact only six Texas fertilizer plants were inspected in that time. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is chronically understaffed, which means that a given plant like West Fertilizer can only expect to get a state inspection once every 67 years on average.
With this kind of neglect, worker safety is in serious condition. More than 4,500 people were killed at work in 2010, up three percent from the previous year, meaning that more American workers died on the job in one year than died during the entire Iraq war. This doesn’t even count the others who might suffer from dangerous workplace conditions like those residents of West injured in the blast who didn’t work at the plant.
While OSHA has been a good deal more effective than it was during the Bush years, it still suffers from a lack of funding and staff. Worse, it’s slated to take a huge cut under the sequester. The agency will have to cut its $564.8 million budget by 8.2 percent, which the White House predicted would mean 1,200 fewer workplace inspections. And it would be even more hobbled if House Republicans get their way. The party’s 2011 budget, which was little changed in the most recent iteration, sought to reduce OSHA’s budget by $99 million while slashing other workplace protection agencies.