Wednesday, July 18, 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.

Comments
Editorial: Scott should order investigation of concealed weapons permitting

Editorial: Scott should order investigation of concealed weapons permitting

To his credit, Gov. Rick Scott says he is considering requests to order an independent investigation of how Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam’s office screens applications for concealed weapon permits. It’s a reasonable request, and the governor h...
Updated: 9 hours ago
Editorial: Sacrificing two kayaks and a Toyota for free speech

Editorial: Sacrificing two kayaks and a Toyota for free speech

Maggy Hurchalla joked this spring that all she could offer a billionaire who won a $4.4 million judgment against her after she exercised her free speech rights were "two kayaks and an aging Toyota.’’ The billionaire didn’t laugh. This week, Martin Co...
Published: 07/17/18
Updated: 07/18/18
Editorial: Trump sides with Putin over America

Editorial: Trump sides with Putin over America

In one of the most surreal news conferences of our time, President Donald Trump actually stood next to Russian President Vladimir Putin Monday and called the federal investigation into Russia’s meddling into the 2016 election "a disaster for our coun...
Published: 07/16/18
Editorial: A vote for preserving waterfront parks by St. Petersburg City Council

Editorial: A vote for preserving waterfront parks by St. Petersburg City Council

The St. Petersburg City Council made the appropriate but difficult decision to reject a contract with renowned artist Janet Echelman for one of her aerial sculptures. It would be wonderful for the city to have one of her signature works, but Spa Beac...
Published: 07/13/18

‘Everybody needed to know what happened’

The brutal murder of Emmett Till, a black Chicago youth, in Mississippi nearly 63 years ago went unpunished, but not forgotten. A decision by his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, to allow an open casket at Emmett’s Chicago funeral represented an act of def...
Published: 07/13/18
Editorial: Personal bias taints Florida’s clemency system

Editorial: Personal bias taints Florida’s clemency system

A recent exchange between the governor and Cabinet and a felon seeking to have his civil rights restored underscores the arbitrary unfairness of Florida’s clemency system. A long waiting period, a ridiculous backlog of cases and elected officials who...
Published: 07/11/18
Updated: 07/13/18

Trump should work with Congress on immigration

Donald Trump’s resounding victory in the 2016 presidential election came at least in part because the New York businessman grasped the disconnect between how millions of Americans and the political establishments of both parties felt about immigratio...
Published: 07/11/18
Updated: 07/13/18
Editorial: Trump’s trade war hurts American consumers

Editorial: Trump’s trade war hurts American consumers

Voters who looked to Donald Trump to make America great might want to look at their wallets. The president escalated his global trade war this week, threatening new tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports — everything from seafood, beef and ...
Published: 07/11/18
Updated: 07/12/18
Editorial: Rays stadium cost should be fairly shared

Editorial: Rays stadium cost should be fairly shared

The imaginative Ybor City ballpark proposed by the Tampa Bay Rays fits nicely into the 21st century vision of a sophisticated city and would secure major league baseball’s future for the entire region. It also carries an eye-catching cost that will h...
Published: 07/11/18
Updated: 07/12/18
Editorial: Supreme Court pick qualified, but confirmation process should be vigorous

Editorial: Supreme Court pick qualified, but confirmation process should be vigorous

For the second time in less than 18 months, President Donald Trump has nominated a well-qualified, conservative federal appeals court judge to the U.S. Supreme Court. That does not mean Judge Brett Kavanaugh should get an easy pass through Senate con...
Published: 07/10/18
Updated: 07/11/18