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"I Always Knew Somebody Would Get Killed Inside That Place"

A deadly explosion at a steel plant reveals a workplace safety system where inspections are rushed and penalties are weak or nonexistent.

| Mon May 21, 2012 5:00 AM EDT
A safety sign outside the US Steel complex in Clairton, Pennsylvania, where Nick Revetta was killed in September 2009

Update, 6/7/12: Two weeks after this story ran, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced that it has pared its inspection goal for the year. The revision was made primarily because the agency has been conducting "more complex, time consuming" inspections this year, an agency spokesman wrote in an email.

Early on the morning of September 3, 2009, Nicholas Adrian Revetta left the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, suburb of Pleasant Hills and drove 15 minutes to a job at US Steel's Clairton Plant, a soot-blackened industrial complex on the Monongahela River. He never returned home.

Revetta was working as a laborer for a US Steel contractor that had employed his father, at the same plant that employed his brother. Shortly before 11:30 a.m., gas leaking from a line in the plant's Chemicals and Energy Division found an ignition source and exploded, propelling him backward into a steel column and inflicting a fatal blow to his head. Thirty-two years old, he left behind a wife and two young children.

Nick Revetta's death did not make national headlines. No hearings were held into the accident that killed him. No one was fired or sent to jail.

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Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, American workers are entitled to "safe and healthful" conditions. Revetta's death and the events that followed lay bare the law's limitations, showing how safety can yield to speed, how fatal accidents can have few consequences for employers, and how federal investigations can be cut short by what some call a de facto quota system.

In the Revetta case, the Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) failed to issue even a minor citation to US Steel, the world's 12th-largest steelmaker and an economic leviathan in western Pennsylvania. The company paid no fine, although current and former workers say that its contractors— including Revetta's employer—faced intense pressure to finish their work.

OSHA did look into Revetta's death, as required by law. A safety inspector from the agency's Pittsburgh office spent more than two months on the case, working tirelessly to find the cause of the explosion. Yet emails obtained by the Center for Public Integrity show that his requests for help went unanswered, and he was pulled off the investigation by a supervisor striving to meet inspection goals. "My problem is at what point do we give up quality for quantity," inspector Michael Laughlin wrote in an appeal to a higher-ranking OSHA official in Philadelphia in November 2009. "I need some guidance because I'm torn and my spirit is broken because of the need to complete this case to the best of my ability." The official advised Laughlin to "relax" and use the weekend to "go out and hit some [golf] balls!"

In the end, OSHA penalized an insulation contractor that had been working in the area of the explosion. The contractor paid $10,763 in fines unrelated to the blast and was not implicated in Revetta's death. (The typical OSHA fine for an on-the-job death is less than $8,000; see sidebar.)

"The OSHA investigation that was done missed the point," says John Gismondi, a lawyer who represents Nick Revetta's wife, Maureen, in a lawsuit against US Steel. "It wasn't the right type of investigation. They spent all their time on penny-ante stuff. How do you have a situation where all the pipes are owned or maintained by US Steel, you have an explosion, a guy is killed and you have no violation? How is that possible?"

"I'm upset with US Steel," Maureen Revetta says, "but I think I'm angrier with OSHA. They're the government agency that's supposed to keep people safe…It just seemed like they purposely didn't want to fine US Steel."

In a written statement to the Center for Public Integrity, OSHA said it conducted a "thorough investigation" of Nick Revetta's death. "It was determined [that] there was insufficient factual evidence that could support the issuance of citations specifically related to the root cause of the incident."

David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, would not talk about the Revetta case; nor would Robert Szymanski, the head of OSHA's Pittsburgh Area Office. Edward Selker, the now-retired OSHA deputy regional administrator who urged inspector Laughlin to go hit golf balls, did not return calls to his home. A US Steel spokeswoman declined to comment. In a court filing, the company has denied any negligence in the case.

The silence has shaken Revetta's former coworkers. "It just hasn't gone away," says John Straub, a US Steel employee who has worked in Clairton since 1979. "Nobody has really explained to us exactly what happened. They tell us they don't know what the ignition source was. I was working in that same area a couple of weeks before the explosion. I look back and say, 'That could have been me.'"

"These deaths take place behind closed doors."

More than 4,500 American workers are killed on the job annually. There were 4,690 workplace deaths in 2010, a 3 percent increase from 2009. (A decade earlier, the annual toll exceeded 6,000. The soft economy, the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes, has led to fewer workers and less work in high-risk industries such as construction.) The US workplace fatality rate remains roughly six times that of the United Kingdom, which has stricter safety rules.

Patrick and Nick Revetta: Courtesy of Patrick RevettaNick Revetta (right) on his wedding day, with his older brother Patrick Courtesy of Patrick Revetta

Combine the victims of traumatic injuries with the estimated 50,000 people who die annually of work-related diseases, and it's as if a fully loaded Boeing 737-700 crashed every day. "These deaths take place behind closed doors," says Michael Silverstein, the recently retired head of Washington state's workplace safety agency. "They occur one or two at a time, on private property. There's an invisibility element."

It would take the perpetually short-staffed OSHA more than 130 years to inspect every workplace in the United States. Managers and their underlings must strike a balance between meeting "performance goals" set in Washington and conducting comprehensive inspections when deaths occur. A target of 42,250 inspections nationwide was established for fiscal year 2012, up 5.6 percent from the previous year's goal. The number of federal inspectors, meanwhile, has stayed mostly flat; there were 1,118 in February 2012.

In a statement, OSHA said it "does not set strict inspection quotas. The Agency does, however, set inspection goals—and they are just goals—in order to monitor and manage our activities. We do not believe that these inspection goals preclude the Agency from doing a thorough inspection."

It would take the perpetually short-staffed OSHA more than 130 years to inspect every workplace in the United States.

Others aren't so sure. "They called them goals, but you were definitely expected to make your numbers—that was the term of art," says David DiTommaso, a former OSHA area director in Montana. "If you didn't, you had to have a reason and you would be judged on it."

In August 2011, with the federal fiscal year nearing a close, an unidentified safety supervisor in the OSHA regional office covering Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington, DC, urged inspectors to step up their pace and not get bogged down in the minutiae of complex cases, including those involving deaths and serious injuries. "As per our calculations this morning, we need an average of 14 inspections opened per week," wrote the supervisor, whose name was removed from an email obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.

The supervisor went on: "Essentially, do what you gotta do to stay gainfully employed. It's great to be caught up, but we only have a short window to open enough inspections to make all of our goals. I suppose you could say, 'it's not my problem' but I can't guarantee there wouldn't be a ton of heat coming down from the RO [regional office] on any office that falls short. We are going to be getting a new RA [regional administrator] soon and being perceived as 'slackers' is not a good first impression. I know how difficult all of the accidents/fatalities/sig [significant] cases have been on everyone but unfortunately that won't likely be taken into consideration when the clock strikes October"—the beginning of the new fiscal year.

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