Under federal law the Occupational Health and Safety Administration is responsible for making sure workers are protected on the job.
But the federal agency rarely scrutinizes the North Country.
As NHPR’s Chris Jensen reports, it’s raising questions about how well workers are protected on the job.
On the morning of May 14th in 2010 Jesse Kennett headed off to his new job at the Black Mag plant in Colebrook.
That’s where he would be making a gunpowder substitute for use in replicas of muzzle-loading rifles.
Kennett had worked for a couple of decades at the Ethan Allen furniture plant and then lost his job when the plant closed.
Kennett’s wife, Bethany, said he was happy to have a job again and the couple figured somebody would have checked to make sure the the Black Mag plant was safe.
“My husband felt safe.”
That afternoon it became clear Black Mag was anything but safe.
Sound of sirens and dispatch…
A huge explosion felt throughout the town killed Kennett and co-worker Donald Kendall and injured a third man.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigated and finally concluded the plant had huge safety problems. It recommended fines totaling $1.2 million.
“I was just really shocked at all the safety issues. I had no idea.”
In fact, the OSHA office headquartered in Concord had no idea.
It didn’t know the plant existed until it was brought to their attention with a huge and deadly bang.
A review of OSHA records over the last five years shows the federal safety agency rarely visits Coos County.
On average OSHA visits just under 400 businesses a year in New Hampshire.
It made it to Coos three times in the first nine months of this year.
Rosemarie Ohar, OSHA’s director for New Hampshire, admits the agency has limited resources.
She has six safety-compliance inspectors for the entire state and plans to hire one more.
“I think we do very well with the resources that we have to cover as much as we do.”
A 2011 AFL-CIO study found it would take OSHA about 149 years to visit every work site in the state.
Only six states would take longer,
What does OSHA director Ohar think of the AFL-CIO report?
“That’s where we recognize that we do have limitations.”
From the beginning OSHA has been short on resources.
David Weil is a nationally known expert on OSHA and a professor of economics at the Boston University School of Management.
“Congress has never been willing to fund it beyond – in constant dollars – pretty much at the same level since it was created.”
Weil says the business community has lobbied against additional funding and has opposed stronger regulations and harsher penalties for violating them.
So, while people may think the federal government has assured their workplace is safe Weil says that’s not the case.
“The reality is that OSHA has a very limited budget, an enforcement budget and a number of inspectors that probably numbers somewhere below 2,500 nationally and this mandate covers over seven and one-half million workplaces distributed across the entire United States.”
No matter how thoughtfully OSHA approaches workplace safety here’s what Weil says it comes down to.
“You still have a relatively low probability that any given worksite is going to be directly receiving an OSHA inspection.”
New Hampshirearea director Ohar says she is doing the best she can, going after the most serious problems.
Two things prompt OSHA to inspect a business.
A complaint automatically triggers an inspection.
Then, OSHA also targets high hazard industries for inspection.
OSHA’s headquarters does an analysis of the types of jobs in which workers are being injured or killed. Then OSHA tells its regional offices to focus on those.
Rosemarie Ohar acknowledges there is very little room for flexibility.
“We have a lot of guidance.”
For example one of OSHA’s national concerns is construction.
That’s why OSHA had 19 inspections in Coos in 2009, the year that the federal prison was being built in Berlin.
That was about the same number of visits to Coos as in 2006, 2007 and 2008 combined.
Of the year three visits to Coos through September of this year, two were prompted by complaints from workers at a resort and store.
The third was a planned visit to a construction company in Lancaster.
OSHA boss Ohar says the infrequent number of visits does not mean Coos is poorly protected.
“I disagree with that because we do target the hazards in the state and we look across the state to all areas of the state.”
But while there has been a huge construction project installing a wind turbines in Northern Coos it has yet to be visited.
Neither was the re-opened paper plant in Gorham.
While logging is considered one of the most dangerous occupations none of the companies in Coos was visited.
Those seem like logical targets for a kind of preventive medicine. But OSHA doesn’t work that way.
Ohar says she just can’t send an inspector off to look at a work site because it might pose hazards.
“No, we can’t just knock on a door and say ‘Hi, we’re from OSHA.’ We have to have a reason to do an inspection.”
Ohar also denies the explosion at Black Mag indicates a problem with OSHA’s system.
“I don’t believe that we missed it. We were not aware of that program.”
Could OHSA be neglecting Coos because it is a rural area? Boston University’s Weil says rural areas nationwide haven’t fared well.
“I think it is true that rural areas have historically received attention than urban or more populated areas partly because of where OSHA offices are based, which tend to be closer to larger, metropolitan areas, partly because rural areas are going to have smaller work places and more dispersed work places.”
Despite OSHA’s struggles Weil says there is no question that the agency has helped workers.
“I think the overall record of OSHA is a positive one, particularly in light of its limitations.”
He says nationwide injuries and fatalities have declined substantially since OSHA was established about four decades ago.
For NHPR News this is Chris Jensen
To see the AFL-CIO report on OSHA: http://www.aflcio.org/issues/safety/memorial/doj_2011.cfm
To see the OSHA press release on violations at Black Mag: http://www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_table=NEWS_RELEASES&p_id=18594
To see the OSHA report on Black Mag: http://www.osha.gov/dep/citations/blackmag.pdf
To see how OSHA settled the case: http://www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_table=NEWS_RELEASES&p_id=20169