"I Always Knew Somebody Would Get Killed Inside That
A deadly explosion at a steel plant reveals a workplace
safety system where inspections are rushed and penalties
are weak or nonexistent.
Jim Morris, Center for Public Integrity
Mon May. 21, 2012 3:00 AM PDT
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.
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
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
"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
for the rest of this story, go to
Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.
Submit via email: [log in to unmask]
Submit via the Web: http://portside.org/submittous3
Frequently asked questions: http://portside.org/faq
Search Portside archives: http://portside.org/archive
Contribute to Portside: https://portside.org/donate