1. Opinion

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 Dec. 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.


  1. This photo provided by Time magazine shows Greta Thunberg, who has been named Time’s youngest “person of the year” on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019.   The media franchise said Wednesday on its website that Thunberg is being honored for work that transcends backgrounds and borders.  (Time via AP) [AP]
    Here’s what readers had to say in Saturday’s letters to the editor.
  2. A look at major newspapers' editorials on impeachment [Tampa Bay Times]
    A round-up of excerpts of editorials from across America.
  3. Election day at the Coliseum for St. Petersburg municipal elections. [DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times]
    Florida should make it easier, not harder, for voters in 2020, writes a new Florida State graduate.
  4. The manuscript of Florida's constitution from 1885. The current version was revised and ratified in 1968. [Florida Memory]
    The governor wants to give a civics test to high school students. He should aim higher and require one of state lawmakers.
  5. President Donald Trump speaks Thursday during the White House Summit on Child Care and Paid Leave in the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci) [EVAN VUCCI  |  AP]
    The House has enough reason to justify the impeachment of President Donald Trump.
  6. House Judiciary Committee session during a House Judiciary Committee markup of the articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump, Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, Pool) [JOSE LUIS MAGANA  |  AP]
    There is a reason Republicans continue to embrace debunked conspiracy theories over Ukraine and the 2016 election, writes a columnist.
  7. Connor Lovejoy, 12, (center left) is pictured with his grandmother Cathy Lovejoy, 57, (center right) who legally adopted him, Coco (left) his therapy dog, Loki, who is a trained service dog (right) and a new kitten named Weasley (center). Connor is diagnosed with autism, fetal alcohol syndrome, intermittent explosive disorder, oppositional defiance disorder (ODD), and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The boy has been taken for mental health evaluations in the back of a police cruiser under Florid'a Baker Act more times than his grandmother can remember. [JOHN PENDYGRAFT  |  Times]
    Too often, the decisions are being made by officers without proper training and without notifying parents first.
  8. Ukraine Nazi concentration camp survivor Petro Mischtschuk, 78 years old, kneels with a red rose in his hand in front of the camp entrance at the former Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald near Weimar, eastern Germany, in April 2005. [JENS MEYER  |  AP]
    Here’s what readers had to say in Friday’s letters to the editor.
  9. We asked readers the eternal question in polls on Facebook and Twitter. Here are the results.