All In   |  April 18, 2013

What can be done to improve work place safety

Chris Hayes talks with Mike Elk, Staff Writer for In These Times, and Celeste Monforton, former policy analyst for the Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, about ways to make Americans safer at work.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> let's bring in mike, staff writer and celeste , foreign policy analyst from the department of labor 's occupational safety and health administration . great to have you both here. when you heard about this, mike and started looking through the osha records, i saw it from your reporting, were you surprised it had been so long since osha inspected the plant?

>> no. literally the plant had not been inspected in my lifetime, literally not since 1985 . there's not enough osha inspector inspectors for the country. there are so few in texas, it would take 98 years for them to inspect every place once. it didn't surprise me. typically there's only an inspector when a worker calls up and complains and typically only in a union workplace.

>> it's a complaint and people come out and not like doors on hazardous work sites.

>> occasionally, not that often.

>> what is the standard. you would think a fertilizer fertilizer -- about 20 employees in this west fertilizer warehouse where this happened. what is this standard that would prompt a heightened level of scrutiny from osha or from any kind of federal regulatory body, looking into this?

>> you're absolutely right. the materials that we believe were on that site are extremely caustic. can cause obviously catastrophic damage to both the plant and the community. osha does target workplaces that are particularly hazardous, but that's such a small fraction of the work that they do, and depending how this particular plant was categorized, how they described their industry, they may have been exempt from osha inspections. for many years, congress has put a rider on osha 's preparations that prohibits them from doing inspections at small facilities with less than 10 employees and in particular industries designated to be low injury industries. what we know from illness and injury records, flips and trips and cuts are not predictive of what's going to happen in a facility like this, where you ha have, you know, releases of highly hazardous chemicals. so, really, a lot of this responsibility falls on congress, one, for not adequately funding osha , but, two, for puttin ting handcuffs on the agency to decide where it needs to target its resources.

>> how does osha think about risks? you would think again a fertilizer -- we know there are epa regulators in there, texas air quality regulators in there. the last time there was a real inspection, 2006 . how does osha think about risk in the workplace? you know, a mine versus -- call center versus a fertilizer factory?

>> you know -- celeste probably is better.

>> go ahead, celeste .

>> what i wanted to say was, when you have an agency that has such a huge mission, 9 million workplaces and so few inspectors, it's a real challenge to figure out where it's best sending those inspectors to spend their time. osha does have a number of emphasis programs particularly for those facilities that have highly hazardous chemicals. even that, they're only going to get to a few dozen of those plants. and so, chris, your question is, is an appropriate one but difficult to think about risk when you have such limited resources to get to.

>> thinking in this comprehensive way about risk you would want to prevent something like this. mike, you've been reporting about this a lot. is this something that has gotten better or worse in the last five years? has it more-or-less stayed the same?

>> well, you know, if you look over the long run, you look how difficult it is for osha to enact new safety rules, obama has not -- in his 4 1/2 years in office initiated and completed a newspaper safety rule on any matter. there has been in previous administrations. the average time it takes to initiate a rule is seven years. the obama administration is currently issuing new rules rules -- the reagan administration issued new rules four times the obama administration for workplace safety . it's gotten progressively worse the last 30 years.

>> celeste .

>> if i might put that in context. we have to think about what has gone in in washington d.c. in terms of real attacks on regulatory agencies . they're vilified, they're made to be responsible for the fall of our economy. that's not what happens. there is no evidence whatsoever to demonstrate that workplace safety regulations by osha make any impact on a business's ability. i would argue that a facility like this that blows up, not only do you have the devastation of people who've been killed, you have now a lost numbers of jobs and you have a community that's completely devastated by this disaster.

>> yeah. this is a perfect example of of -- i don't -- i cover public life for a living. i don't think very often who's regulating huge warehouses of nitrates that are sitting there and could blow up. that's someone's job, right? someone is out there doing this. one place is the chemical safety board. they do post disaster investigations. they try to create recommendations. here's a statistic to give you a sense, celeste , about the squeezing there is on regulatory bodies more fully. those gray bars are recorded incidents, right, chemical workplace incidents and those orange bars are investigations. what you see is a gap opening up between the two. does that track with what you have seen, celeste ?

>> absolutely. you talk about the chemical safety board, their budget is $10 million. $10 million. they try to respond to high consequence incidents. but we have about 200 of those in our country every year. they can do a handful, maybe five or six.

>> they're on the way to investigate the aftermath of what happened in west with the fertilizer plant, along with a bunch of other federal agencies . right now, we don't know what happened and we will be continuing to follow that story. mike of "in these times" and celeste , former osha analyst. that's all for "all in." rachel maddow now.

>> thank you for following up on that. we will have much more on what a's happening in west texas .