Sunday, April 22, 2018
Editorials

Editorial: OSHA’s fines for TECO tragedy not enough

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.

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Editorial: Allegiant Air still has safety issues

Editorial: Allegiant Air still has safety issues

Allegiant Air’s safety record remains troubling, and the Federal Aviation Administration’s reluctance to talk about it is no more encouraging. Those are the key takeaways from a 60 Minutes report on the low-cost carrier’s high rate of mid-flight brea...
Published: 04/21/18

Editorial: Women’s work undervalued in bay area

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Published: 04/21/18
Editorial: New Cuba president is chance for new start

Editorial: New Cuba president is chance for new start

For all the symbolism, Raul Castro’s handoff of the Cuban presidency this week amounts to less than meets the eye even if his handpicked successor, the Communist Party functionary Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez, is the first person not named Castro to le...
Published: 04/20/18

Editorial: A missed chance for open primary elections

The Florida Constitution Revision Commission did a lot of things wrong this week by combining unrelated or unpalatable provisions into single amendments that will appear on the November ballot. It also wasted an opportunity to do one thing right. The...
Published: 04/20/18
Editorial: When they visit Nature’s Classroom, kids are right where they belong

Editorial: When they visit Nature’s Classroom, kids are right where they belong

The Hillsborough school district planted a fruitful seed with the opening of Nature’s Classroom five decades ago on the cypress-lined banks of the Hillsborough River northeast of Tampa. • The lessons taught there to some 17,000 sixth graders each yea...
Published: 04/20/18

Editorial: Equality pays off on Southwest Flight 1380

The passengers of Southwest Flight 1380 can be thankful that, 33 years ago, the U.S. Navy took the lead on equal opportunity.Capt. Tammie Jo Shults was piloting the flight from New York to Dallas on Tuesday when an engine exploded, blowing out a wind...
Published: 04/19/18
Updated: 04/20/18
Editorial: Why single-member districts would be bad for Hillsborough commission

Editorial: Why single-member districts would be bad for Hillsborough commission

Anyone looking to make Hillsborough County government bigger, costlier, more dysfunctional and less of a regional force should love the idea that Commissioner Sandy Murman rolled out this week. She proposes enlarging the seven-member board to nine, e...
Published: 04/19/18
Updated: 04/20/18
Editorial: Improving foster care in Hillsborough

Editorial: Improving foster care in Hillsborough

A new foster care provider in Hillsborough County is poised to take over operations in May, only months after its predecessor was fired for what was alleged to be a pattern of failing to supervise at-risk children in its care. Many of the case manage...
Published: 04/18/18

Another voice: Back to postal reform

President Donald Trump is angry at Amazon for, in his tweeted words, "costing the United States Post Office massive amounts of money for being their Delivery Boy." Yet in more recent days, Trump has at least channeled his feelings in what could prove...
Published: 04/17/18
Updated: 04/18/18
Editorial: Congress should protect independence of special counsel

Editorial: Congress should protect independence of special counsel

A bipartisan Senate bill clarifying that only the attorney general or a high-ranking designee could remove a special prosecutor would send an important message amid President Donald Trump’s attacks on the investigation into Russia’s inter...
Published: 04/16/18
Updated: 04/17/18