OSHA Works 7 Years Drafting Chemical Plant Safety Rules

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By Russell Carollo Cox News Service Karl Hurt's skin was melting as petroleum vapor exploded into a fireball around him. "All I could see was fire. I didn't know I was burned," said Hurt, still recovering from his injuries. "I stood there for a second, and then I ran. "I looked down and saw the meat on my arms was charred. The pain wasn't really bad until they started taking the bad part off." Hurt was burned in the August 1989 explosion at Phillips 66's Houston Chemical Complex in Pasadena, Texas. A co-worker, 24-year-old Darrell Quinn, was burned so badly that 45 hours of surgery couldn't save him. He died Christmas Day 1989. Phillips, a $12-billion-a-year company based in Bartlesville, was fined $720 by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Two months later, another explosion _ spewing debris for miles and registering on earthquake instruments at Rice University _ shook the same plant. This time, 23 people died and 314 were injured. It was the worst industrial accident in the history of OSHA, and the $5.7 million fine was the second largest ever proposed. Phillips is appealing. Union investigators blamed both explosions on poorly trained contract workers who opened valves by mistake. These explosions were among dozens of chemical accidents killing or injuring hundreds, displacing thousands and causing tens of millions of dollars in damages since 1984. Meanwhile, regulations addressing many of the apparent causes _ including better training for contract workers _ were tangled in a federal bureaucracy. OSHA proposed tougher chemical plant regulations after a chemical-plant disaster in Bhopal, India, killed more than 2,000 people in 1984. That was nearly seven years ago. "It's not an unusual time frame for a standard," said OSHA's Chappell Pierce, whose staff is writing the regulations. "We've had some that have taken 15 years." But Mike Wright of the United Steelworkers of America said, "It's obscene for an OSHA official to say six years is not a long time when it costs four dozen people's lives." OSHA's proposal addressed chemical plant maintenance, employee training, protective clothing and disaster plans. But work on the proposal stalled. Why it stalled is disputed. OSHA's Pierce said the agency decided to stop the work. But unions and an OSHA official said the federal Office of Management and Budget refused to let OSHA continue. …