Editorial: OSHA’s fines for TECO tragedy not enough

TECO Plant 4 2. Hillsborough County, Fl. 12-3-08. The TECO power plant at Big Bend has been providing power to people in Tampa for years. News Channel 8 photo by KATE CALDWELL.
TECO Plant 4 2. Hillsborough County, Fl. 12-3-08. The TECO power plant at Big Bend has been providing power to people in Tampa for years. News Channel 8 photo by KATE CALDWELL.
Published December 28 2017
Updated December 29 2017

Tampa Electric Co. got off remarkably light for the actions that led to the deaths of five workers at a Hillsborough County power plant in June. The sanctions proposed Thursday by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration come nowhere close to addressing the seriousness of the tragedy or to acting as a deterrent for power companies tempted to ignore safety rules in the future. This case cries out for stiffer penalties and for OSHA to seek a criminal investigation by the Justice Department.

The OSHA probe followed a June 29 accident at the Big Bend plant in Apollo Beach that killed five workers and injured a sixth. A senior Tampa Electric plant operator and at least five contract workers were trying to unplug a tank containing molten slag that can reach temperatures of more than 1,000 degrees. Slag gushed from the tank, falling on the workers below and covering the floor 40 feet across and 6 inches deep.

In the citation it issued to Tampa Electric, OSHA wrote that the top of the slag tank had been at least partially clogged for 13 hours, meaning hot slag had been building up in the unit for half a day with nowhere to drain. The company’s rules dictate the unit should have been turned off after six to eight hours, OSHA said. Instead a team assembled to remove the hardened slag at the bottom while the unit was still on. OSHA cited the company for a "willful" violation of safety — its most serious citation, given only for intentional disregard or indifference to safety — saying it allowed a workplace to exist with "recognized hazards" that were "likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees."

OSHA cited Tampa Electric for two violations and fined it the maximum for each — $126,749 for a "willful" violation of safety rules and $12,675 for a "serious" case of failing to provide workers with appropriate protective gear. A contractor, Gaffin Industrial Services of Riverview, was fined $21,548 for not providing proper procedures or adequate gear. In all, the fines total $160,972, or about $32,200 per worker killed.

These fines, set by Congress, are absurdly low. They don’t address the dangerous nature of these work environments or act as an incentive for industrial employers to improve safety. An August investigation by the Tampa Bay Times found that the company had experienced a near-identical incident in 1997 that injured at least three people. In July, after the deadly accident, then-CEO Gordon Gillette said the company would stop doing the kind of work that led to this accident until the investigations had concluded. But in August, workers at the plant performed a similar maneuver. On Thursday, Tampa Electric said it imposed a new rule permanently banning work on the slag tank while the boiler is running, a decision that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. It also reaffirmed the company’s commitment to safety. Of course, the community has heard such pledges before.

Tampa Electric said it has not decided whether to contest the citations, though it disagreed with OSHA’s finding that it was wilfully indifferent to safety. Whatever action the company takes should contribute to the public’s understanding of the tragedy and not be an exercise in damage control. OSHA should also exercise its discretion to refer the case to the Justice Department to consider criminal charges. This is an appropriate determination for prosecutors to make, and it would bring more accountability to this preventable tragedy.