Federal work-safety investigators had not inspected Central Ready Mix LLC in Middletown for 13 years before 39-year-old Tim Taylor, of New Carlisle, was engulfed in fly ash and killed last year.
Taylor’s death was “a terrible, preventable tragedy,” said Bill Wilkerson, the Cincinnati-area director for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. But OSHA investigators were unable to unearth serious safety violations at the cement company before the accident due to tight budgets, government regulations and staff turnover, Wilkerson said.
“Could we have done something?” Wilkerson said. “Yes, if we had a program that targeted confined space operation.”
Government mandates and underfunding mean OSHA spends more time investigating accidents than preventing them, said Ron White, director of regulatory policy for the nonprofit Center for Effective Government in Washington, D.C.
Based on current staffing and funding levels, it would take OSHA 100 years or more to inspect every facility they’re supposed to in the U.S., White said.
“We really are in a situation where OSHA is forced to understandably focus on those workplaces that already have a track record,” White said. “What that means is there might be other places that don’t yet have a track record that have yet to be discovered.”
In another workplace accident that gained national attention, a West, Texas fertilizer plant exploded in April 2013 killing 16 people and injuring 160. It was found afterwards that West Fertilizer Co. hadn’t been inspected by OSHA since the 1980s, according to the Associated Press.
As the main federal agency tasked with inspecting the safety of 130 million workers, budgetary and other challenges force OSHA to prioritize immediate safety and health problems over long-term illness-causing exposures, White said.
OSHA has to have a reason to inspect a company, said Wilkerson. A historically high accident rate, programs to reduce specific safety hazards such as fall hazards, or a worker-related injury or death that has occurred are all reasons that might prompt a review, Wilkerson said.
“This is one of those very unfortunate situations where that plant had not been very active at the time,” Wilkerson said of Central Ready Mix in Middletown. The plant “had a confined space entry program. They didn’t follow it,” he said.
The Cincinnati-area office, which has 22 staffers enforcing worker safety in the Cincinnati, Dayton and Springfield metropolitan areas, is one of 90 local-area offices of OSHA nationwide.
“A lot of attention is focused on immediate hazards,” said Wilkerson, a 40-year veteran of the agency.
Congress appropriates funding for OSHA, a division of the U.S. Department of Labor. Congressional budget appropriations also decide how OSHA spends money on enforcement, compliance, education and other initiatives, said Lauren North, a spokeswoman for the labor department.
Any fines collected go to the U.S. Treasury Department, North said.
Cincinnati is one of 90 local-area offices. OSHA allocates funding and staff resources based on the size and specific needs of each office, North said.
For this federal budget year, which ends September 30, $552 million was budgeted for OSHA operations across the country, according to the agency. This compares to approximately $458 million in fiscal year 2004.
Budget information for the local office was not provided in time for this story.
Adjusted for inflation and pegged to 2012 dollars, OSHA’s budget actually declined from $554 million in 2004 to an estimated $529 million in the current year, according to Center for Effective Government.
“At the national level, there have been significant cuts,” White said.
OSHA conducts planned inspections as well as investigations in response to accidents and complaints.
So many inspections are planned a year at businesses with high accidents rates for their industries. A company’s track record and industries identified as highly hazardous, such as construction and manufacturing, also play a factor in deciding which places to inspect, said Wilkerson.
There are also government programs focused on improving safety rates in certain work processes, such as reducing fall hazards, that would lead OSHA to visit, Wilkerson said. An inspection can also be prompted if OSHA staff sees a violation happen when driving by active construction sites, for example, he said.
Staff can visit a work site to investigate an employee-reported complaint about a serious health or safety issue.
When responding to a company to investigate a complaint, OSHA can’t necessarily review the entire facility. However, if they’re carrying out a planned comprehensive or compliance inspection, staff can review the whole site, Wilkerson said.
Not every business is under OSHA jurisdiction. Some workplaces are exempted by OSHA regulations, such as family farms with fewer than 10 employees.
Inspections can last days or weeks and every case is different, he said.
“Our job is one of really determining how well everybody is doing at self-regulating,” he said.
Employers have incentives to keep injury and accident rates low, which affect workers’ compensation premiums. Moreover, a high and rising accident rate could put the company on OSHA’s list of places to inspect next, he said.
Accident rates are based on address, not the company as whole over multiple locations.
Wilkerson doesn’t expect the Cincinnati office will be able to finish the number of compliance and comprehensive inspections they originally planned to do this year. One reason is because of a government shutdown in October 2013 that closed the Sharonville office for three weeks, he said. The number of area inspections that were planned was not provided by press time.
Taylor, who had worked at Central Ready Mix for 15 years, died from asphyxia and his death was ruled accidental, according to the Butler County Coroner’s Office.
He entered a cone-bottom silo in an attempt to break up clumps of fly ash that had clogged the bottom discharge, OSHA officials said. After attempts to dislodge clumps with a metal bar and air hose did not work, he climbed into the silo, without a harness and lanyard, and devoted several hours to breaking up the clumps before being engulfed, officials said.
Central Ready Mix, with locations in Middletown and Monroe, is now under different ownership.
The company was cited for 10 serious violations. They involved several violations of OSHA’s confined space permit entry requirements such as failing to evaluate a workplace for permit-required confined spaces; developing a written permit space entry program such as signage; creating measures to prevent unauthorized entry; providing necessary equipment; training workers on procedures; and developing a permit issuance system and procedures for summoning rescue and emergency services, according to OSHA.
Proposed fines totaled $55,800.
Despite the challenges, worker safety has improved over the years, Wilkerson feels.
“There’s a greater knowledge and understanding,” he said. “I think nothing replaces workers in the involvement of their own safety.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of occupational illness and injuries at private industry has dropped from 4.3 million a year in 2003 to 3 million in 2012. Fatal work-related injuries have declined from 5,764 in 2004 to 4,628 in 2012, the most recent information available.
Staff Writer Rick McCrabb contributed to this story.