Abby Johnson: Release about Bango paints a scary picture

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It’s not often that a government news release evokes the last days of Pompeii, but last week’s announcement that Nevada OSHA — the Occupational Safety and Health Administration — has levied “three proposed serious citations” against Bango Refining was graphic.

Last December, employees of Bango, which recycles and reuses oil at a facility west of Fallon, tried to restore flow to an asphalt line made sluggish by the subzero temperatures, without safety gear, using unapproved procedures and tools including a propane weed-burner torch. Steam pressure built up in the tank. “The result was the dislocation of the asphalt tank-top cover, which propelled hot liquid asphalt and other combustible products into the air, raining down on the employee using the torch below,” it states. “The employee dropped the lit torch, turned, and attempted to run before he ... slipped and fell forward into the pooling hot asphalt. A fire ensured and all other employees were able to evacuate without injury.”

Nevada OSHA investigated and announced “three proposed serious citations and penalties of $20,790 for violations of Nevada Revised Statues General duty clause and Nevada OSHA General Industry standards,” just $210 shy of the maximum penalty for three infractions.

It is chump change for an accident that caused an explosion, fire and spill severe enough to send the injured worker to the UC Davis burn center. Nevada OSHA doesn’t levy penalties; it “proposes” them, according to Teri Williams, public-information officer for the Nevada Department of Business and Industry. The business then has 15 days to choose one of three options: agree to the findings and pay the penalty; meet with Nevada OSHA staff at an “informal settlement conference” to present additional evidence and discuss procedural changes that could prevent future accidents; or formally appeal the proposed citations.

According to KRNV, in December 2012 and November 2011, Nevada OSHA cited Bango for a number of operational deficiencies. Similar to the 2013 failures, one involved “energy-control procedures.” A friend who is an environmental health and safety specialist says well-established industry procedures exist for thawing sluggish oil lines safely. Using propane-fueled weed torches is not one of them.

It would be worse for Bango if the investigators had determined a “willful” violation. That means, apparently, that management deliberately incited an explosion to injure a worker. I think not. But certainly it is a gray area when the business has been repeatedly cited for deficiencies, when management does not ensure that workers are trained, procedures are following and safety gear is worn. This accident was preventable if management had followed procedures. Isn’t ignoring established safety procedures a willful safety violation?

It’s the business of government to ensure that businesses operate safely and responsibly. The Legislature should reform the citation process to give Nevada OSHA more clout, raise monetary penalties to modern-day levels, and provide incentives to businesses for preventive, responsible, ongoing compliance with environmental health and safety requirements.

Abby Johnson is a resident of Carson City, and a part-time resident of Baker. She consults on community-development and nuclear waste issues. Her opinions are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of her clients.


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