Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Erring on the Side of Disaster: A Utility Company and Two Federal Agencies Failed to Appreciate the Value of Vigilance-And Wind Up Paying a Heavy Price

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Erring on the Side of Disaster: A Utility Company and Two Federal Agencies Failed to Appreciate the Value of Vigilance-And Wind Up Paying a Heavy Price

Article excerpt

The creation of a safety culture is a topic discussed at nearly every major occupational safety conference these days. In its simplest form, a safety culture represents the value that an organization places on safety and the actions that its employees and managers take to operate in a safe fashion. If a company treats safety as the program of the month, no employee with the title of "safety manager" is going to find much success.

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Our cover story this month examines the self-acknowledged failure by FirstEnergy Corp. to develop an effective safety culture at its Davis-Besse nuclear power plant in Ohio. In March 2002, that failure led to the discovery of a large hole in the reactor's pressure vessel head, a carbon steel plate more than 6 inches thick.

As attorney and former NRC inspector Howard Whitcomb told Managing Editor Sandy Smith, "If the head had ruptured at Davis-Besse, the collapse of the containment structure and widespread radioactive contamination could have created a health hazard for thousands of people ..."

While it is troubling that officials at a nuclear power plant failed to fully appreciate the need for a vibrant safety culture, it is equally troubling that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission also failed in its oversight role. In fact, the U.S. General Accounting Office last year found a number of "systemic" problems in NRC's monitoring of nuclear safety.

Both FirstEnergy and NRC say they have learned important lessons from the incident. We'll let you judge for yourself after reading "Davis-Besse: A Plan for Change or a Worst-Case Scenario?"

There is reason to believe that another federal safety agency has failed in its oversight role. Medical tests have revealed that at least three OSHA employees have developed blood abnormalities associated with beryllium exposure, according to a report published in The Chicago Tribune.

The OSHA workers were likely exposed to the widely used metal while conducting safety inspections. Experts say approximately 50 percent of those who test positive for beryllium sensitization may develop beryllium disease, a lung ailment that can be fatal. While there is no cure for beryllium disease, treatment is available for those who are sensitized.

Last year, after years of delay, the agency offered beryllium blood tests to all current employees. The offer did not extend to retired inspectors who had been exposed to beryllium, nor to workers who work for state plan states. …

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