TAMPA — U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, urged the Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Thursday to tighten its rules in response to a June accident that killed five workers at Tampa Electric's Big Bend Power Station in Apollo Beach.
"While the community grieves and OSHA performs an investigation, I strongly encourage OSHA to act swiftly to develop clarifying rules that would prevent future tragic accidents," she wrote in a letter to the agency.
Castor said she contacted OSHA after reading a Tampa Bay Times investigation that found the accident was caused by a maintenance job Tampa Electric ordered despite knowing it was dangerous. Two decades earlier, a near-identical job at another Tampa Electric plant landed at least three employees in the hospital, and prompted a committee of workers and managers to create new guidelines banning the practice.
Eleven power plant experts and operators told the Times the procedure was dangerous. Some said they don't allow it on their campuses.
"OSHA needs to step up and act now to protect workers from the undue risk in these operations," said Castor, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "Five deaths at the Big Bend plant — that should be a wake-up call."
Castor said she also intends to raise the issue in a future meeting of the committee.
Tampa Electric spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs said she had seen Castor's letter, and reiterated that Tampa Electric is "actively cooperating with OSHA and supporting its investigation."
OSHA declined to comment.
The workers involved in both accidents were unclogging a structure called a slag tank.
In some power plants, burning coal creates a lava-like substance called slag. The slag drips from the boiler into a large tank filled with water. When the slag hits the water, it turns into harmless pebbles, which can be ground up and sold to sand-blasting companies.
In both accidents, Tampa Electric drained the tank and performed the maintenance with the boiler on, which some companies refuse to do.
In both accidents, hot slag gushed from the tank.
In her letter, Castor suggested OSHA develop new rules "to protect workers from these slag tank maintenance-related injuries and the many other instances where workers have to choose between their safety and the threat of discipline or dismissal."
Doug Bowden, the business manager of Tampa Electric's workers union, said he was glad to see Castor's letter. Union leaders recently filed a grievance asking Tampa Electric to stop slag tank maintenance with the boilers running.
It is at least the second time union leaders have complained.
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"The irony here," Bowden said, "is that everything that she said needs to be regulated or needs to be law, is just what we've been asking for."
He added: "Hopefully changes will be made and people's lives will be saved."
Contact Kathleen McGrory at email@example.com or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory.