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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

Other OSHA emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveal the numbers-driven pressures that existed in Pittsburgh after Nick Revetta's death. In a message to then-deputy regional administrator Selker two months after the explosion that killed Revetta, inspector Laughlin acknowledged that "goals must be met" but said the case was "clearly not done." His bosses nonetheless directed him to end the investigation. (Laughlin died in January after being struck by a car.)

A chart dated two days after Revetta's death shows that OSHA's Pittsburgh Area Office and the others in its region were easily surpassing their counterparts in the numbers game. With the fiscal year coming to an end, the region was ahead of its goal by 245 inspections. In an email four days later, Selker complimented Szymanski and other managers in Pittsburgh for the "very encouraging and impressive inspection stats…We can hit the ground running and get off to a good start in the first quarter instead of playing catch-up. If we can hold our own in the first quarter, it will make the rest of the year much less tense."

 

Nick and Maureen Revetta: Courtesy of Maureen RevettaMaureen and Nick Revetta Courtesy of Maureen Revetta

"Daddy got hurt at work and he's never coming home."

Nick Revetta's older brother, Patrick, is tall and solidly built, with grey stubble. Forty years old, he lives 11 miles from Clairton but has tried to avoid the place since the accident. He made an exception one bitterly cold day in January 2011. After pointing out the stadium where he played quarterback for the Clairton High School Bears, he drove past a string of deserted businesses on his way to US Steel's hulking Clairton Plant.

Clairton, a city of 6,800 about 15 miles south of Pittsburgh, has seen better days. In 1980, US Steel employed nearly 5,000 at its complex, where coal is superheated in ovens and turned into coke, a key ingredient in steel. Though the plant remains a major employer, its staffing has dropped by three-quarters, not counting contract workers. Almost one-quarter of the city's residents and nearly half of its children live in poverty.

The Revetta brothers and their sister, Kathy, grew up in Clairton the 1970s and '80s. "This place was booming," Patrick recalls. Stocky and stoic, Nick was the "spitting image" of his father Adrian, who worked for Power Piping Co., a construction and fabrication contractor. "They walked alike. They were built the same way—like bulls, basically," Patrick says. Adrian got Nick a job at Power Piping; Nick would work there for 11 years.

Nick and Patrick grew exceptionally close after their mother, Patricia, died of cancer in 1991. "He was like a son to me," Patrick says. "He drank his first beer with me at my college. I took him everywhere. I raised him."

Nick met Maureen Mulligan in 1994, when they were 17, and they married nine years later. Their son Nick was born in 2005, their daughter Gianna in 2008. The children's names were tattooed on their father's right arm, along with the word Italia, a nod to his heritage.

Maureen, a 34-year-old special education and speech teacher, struggles to raise the children without their father. Six-year-old Nick craves male attention. "When [the accident] happened, he was 4½," she says. "I don't think he knew people died. I said, 'Daddy got hurt at work and he's never coming home.'"

"One morning about two weeks before he died, he said, 'I don't think you know what a dangerous place I work at.'"

The Clairton Plant is the largest operation of its kind in the country, with 12 clusters of coke ovens, known as batteries, which produce 4.7 million tons of the carbon-rich fuel annually. At the depth of the recession, in early 2009, coke prices were depressed and activity in Clairton was sluggish. As prices began to rebound that year, "there was a mad rush to get everything up and running again," Patrick says.

Nick was caught in that rush. Power Piping was brought in to help refurbish three gas processing equipment. "You could see it every day," says Patrick, a US Steel employee whose job at the time was to help control emissions from the coke oven batteries. "There was just too much pressure. They had to have that production, man. Nick, he kept telling me they were shortcutting stuff, putting pressure on them to hurry up and get the job finished. I said, 'Just watch your ass.'"

OSHA inspector Laughlin's voluminous notes reflect the frenetic work environment for US Steel contractors such as Power Piping. "They were pushing the manpower…US Steel pushing…pushing people," Laughlin wrote while transcribing one worker interview.

The winter before he was killed, Nick logged 60 days straight at the Clairton Plant. "He was very proud of his job, proud of providing for his family," Maureen says. "He never complained about working." Subdued among strangers, animated among friends, Nick had few hobbies outside his family time. "I never really worried about his safety," Maureen says. "Then, one morning about two weeks before he died, he said, 'I don't think you know what a dangerous place I work at.'"

Around the same time, Patrick recalls, Nick complained that there were gas "leaks all over the place" in a part of the plant's Chemicals and Energy Division known as the No. 2 control room. "I always knew somebody would get killed inside that place," Patrick says, "but I never thought in a million years it would be my baby brother."

 

US Steel Clairton Works: TK/FlickrUS Steel's Clairton Works Sean_Marshall/Flickr

The explosion

Four days before Labor Day 2009, Nick and a coworker were given a routine assignment. They were to repair concrete pillars supporting the dormant B Cold Box, a pipe-filled structure the size of a storage pod in the No. 2 control room. The box is part of a cryogenic process used to separate "light oil" containing benzene, xylene, and toluene from coke-oven gas.

Nick was standing near the box, getting ready to mix grout, when, at 11:26 a.m., an explosion sent him hurtling backward into a column. He appears to have died instantly. A foreman at the plant later told OSHA inspector Laughlin that it looked like Nick had been buried in a snow drift, the "snow" being piles of white, fluffy insulation blown from the B Cold Box.

At the moment of the blast, Patrick was coming off his shift at the plant's B Battery, maybe 100 yards away. "I heard a loud arcing noise," he recalls. "I turned in that direction and saw the flash and heard the explosion." He called Nick three times on his cellphone but got no answer.

Patrick ran to the lunch trailer and encountered Nick's boss, who said Nick was unaccounted for. Then he saw his brother being carried out on a stretcher. Patrick's chest grew tight, his breathing labored. He thought he was having a heart attack and was taken by ambulance to the plant clinic.

Eventually, a worker who'd found Nick told Patrick his brother was dead. Patrick began cursing everyone within earshot, then went straight to Jefferson Regional Medical Center, where Nick had been taken. He asked to see his brother's clothing, which was "soaking wet. You could smell the benzene." He saw no signs of trauma: "There wasn't a burn mark on him."

Although an autopsy would establish the cause of death as blunt-force trauma to the head and trunk, Maureen also detected no evidence of serious injury when she saw Nick's body that afternoon. "He looked perfect," she says, "except for a little red line on his nose."

 
Investigating the accident

Mike Laughlin was dispatched to the Clairton plant about two and a half hours after the explosion. A heavyset Army veteran with a thick grey mustache, Laughlin had investigated dozens of fatal accidents since joining OSHA in 1990. Rose Bezy, vice president of United Steelworkers Local 1557, which represents about 1,200 US Steel workers in Clairton, joined Laughlin as he picked his way through the debris around the demolished B Cold Box. "The guy was relentless," Bezy says. "He was all over the place."

"Nick, he kept telling me they were shortcutting stuff, putting pressure on them to hurry up and get the job finished."

US Steel officials followed Laughlin as he worked. "Whenever he would take a picture," Bezy says, "there would be a US Steel guy with a camera, taking the same picture." Three well-dressed corporate security officials from Pittsburgh appeared at the plant several hours after the accident, Bezy says, and forbade Clairton managers from sitting in on interviews with lower-level employees, as would customarily occur. "It looked to me like US Steel's own managers were intimidated," she says.

Early in his investigation, Laughlin realized that he needed help navigating the complex federal rules detailing the steps companies must take to prevent catastrophic fires, explosions, and chemical releases. He kept pressing Pittsburgh area director Szymanski to pair him with someone who had expertise in this "process safety management" protocol. OSHA has several hundred inspectors nationwide with such specialized training, including two in Pittsburgh. These specialists can draw conclusions from mangled pipes and burned-out vessels—clues likely to be missed by generalists like Laughlin.

Laughlin made his initial request for help not quite two weeks after Revetta's death. Former OSHA managers say the request should have been granted. "It doesn't make a whole lot of sense that you have an explosion where one of your [inspectors] is asking for help and you don't give it to him," says Dave May, a former OSHA area director in New Hampshire who oversaw some 100 fatality investigations. "In a fatality you bend over backwards to get the help."

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