Six months after Maureen Revetta’s husband, Nick, 32, was killed by an explosion at the U.S. Steel plant in Clairton, PA, she was still waiting to hear from the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The young widow, now a single parent with a two children under age 5, had received a condolence letter from OSHA shortly after the September 2009 incident. The letter indicated the agency was investigating the circumstances surrounding her husband’s work-related death. It didn’t mention, however, that the statute of limitations for issuing citations was six months. When the agency didn’t find any violations of health or safety standards by U.S. Steel or by Nick’s employer Power Piping in the area where her husband worked they closed the case. They never told Maureen, however, that they’d done so.
I “met” Maureen via Facebook when I saw her post note in mid-March 2010, asking how she could find out the status of OSHA’s investigation of her husband’s death. Before contacting her, I did a little research of my own and quickly learned that OSHA had finished its post-fatality inspection and closed the case on February 2nd (exactly six months after their investigation began.) I telephone the young widow to break the news to her. She responded with something like this:
“I feel like a fool. I’ve been sitting around waiting for OSHA to call or let me know, and now I find out they closed the case 5 weeks ago.”
I dreaded hearing, but anticipated her next question:“What did OSHA find?”
Regretfully, I had to explain information available on OSHA’s website indicates that neither company (here and here) was cited for safety violations related to her husband’s death. No monetary penalties were assessed. There was a prolonged silence over the phone line.
Fast forward to Monday, May 21, 2012. One of my favorite investigative reporters publishes the next chapters of the Revetta family’s story. Writing for the Center for Public Integrity and in a story that appears in Mother Jones magazine (and MSNBC), Jim Morris writes that Power Piping employees and other contractors were pressured by U.S. Steel to finish a rebuild of gas-processing equipment in the Clairton plant. Morris interviewed Nick Revetta’s brother, Patrick, who also worked at the plant and on the premises when his younger sibling was killed.
“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.”
OSHA officials did not interview Nick Revetta as part of their investigation.
The front-line OSHA inspector assigned to the case also recognized (and documented) that production pressure on the workers may also have contributed to the deadly safety hazards in the plant. Morris writes:
“OSHA inspector [Michael] Laughlin’s voluminous notes reflect the frenetic work envrionment for U.S. Steel contractors such as Power Piping. ‘They were pushing the manpower….U.S. Steel pushing…pushing people,’ Laughlin wrote while transcribing one worker interview. The winter before he was killed, Nick Revetta logged 60 days straight at the Clairton plant.”
Reading about the employers’ behavior as a cause of Nick Revetta’s work-related death is bad enough, but Morris’ investigation adds several more layers to the story. He explains how OSHA inspector Michael Laughlin worked diligently to investigate the fatality, but failed to get the support he needed (and ask for) up the chain of OSHA command. Laughlin knew the Revetta case required special expertise and time, and he didn’t have either. Morris’ obtained email messages written by Laughlin to a supervisors. His subject line simply read: “Help.”
U.S. Steel was giving the inspector the run-around, six other contractor firms were involved and these witnesses needed to be interviewed, a potentially key safety official had been fired and Laughlin needed to track him down, and on-and-on his email went. Laughlin was also getting pressure to finish up two other major inspection cases.
One superior wrote back, telling Laughlin
“Relax. We’ll figure something out, don’t worry! …Supposed to be a nice weekend. Go out and hits some balls!”
Laughlin’s calls for technical assistance were prescient. Ten months after Nick Revetta’s death, another explosion at the U.S. Steel plant rocked the town of Clairton. When I received a news alert about the explosion, I called Maureen Revetta. I knew she might be reliving her own nightmare of her husband’s death. Maureen heard the firetrucks and ambulances rushing to the plant, and knew the situation was serious. She’d learned that at least a dozen workers had already been transported to the hospital. She wondered if the sirens foretold the birth of a new group of widows and single-parent children in Clairton because of uncontrolled hazards at the U.S. Steel plant.
In his investigative piece, Morris explains OSHA’s response to this subsequent explosion, as well an intermediary inspection conducted following a detailed, 10-page complaint filed by a U.S. Steel employee. He explores the possibility that inspection “goals” or “quotas” or “performance metrics” or whatever you want to call them, may force OSHA field offices and their superiors to focus on quantity (of inspections) rather than quality. His article certainly suggests it.
“OSHA emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveal the number-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.”
Morris notes that OSHA inspector Michael Laughlin died in January 2012 after being struck by a car.
The painful, true story of Nick Revetta’s death casts a light on the workplace factors that lead to far too many on-the-job fatalities. Employers are pushing workers to the brink, failing to invest in the equipment and personnel to do the job safely, and ignoring the knowledge and experience of their employees. From the Upper Big Branch mine, to the BP Texas City refinery, to the U.S. Steel Clairton plant, workers may be the first to realize that their workplace is a disaster just waiting to happen.
Michael Laughlin’s experience also seems to be telling us something similar. Will OSHA pay attention?