Investigation Finds Inspections Lacking for Rail Tanker Cleaning

May 12, 2014

Federal inspectors responsible for workplace safety appear not to know which firms and how many firms handle the dangerous task of cleaning the inside of railroad tankers that carry petrochemicals, a Houston Chronicle investigation has found.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration can’t say how many of those companies it has inspected because federal Labor Department codes for tracking the firms are inconsistent, the newspaper reported.

“We have no way to find companies that do tank washing,” OSHA compliance officer Robert McDonough.

The investigation also showed officials don’t know how many people have been killed while scrubbing the tanker interiors or suffer illnesses related to chemical exposure from the cleaning process. The newspaper’s examination of records shows at least 51 deaths over the past 15 years.

“It’s alarming it is so under the radar,” said Celeste Monforton, who lectures at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University and worked at OSHA. “You are talking about extremely toxic environments. Many of those chemicals have health effects that workers may not experience until 10 to 20 years down the line.”

People who do the job drop steam hoses into the tanker cars to loosen hardened substances. They also crawl through hatches and climb inside the cars to remove residue by hand.

That’s what David Godines was doing in 2011 at a rail yard near the Houston Ship Channel when he collapsed and died.

“The fumes was so strong,” an employee at Austin Industrial Speciality Services, which cleaned cars for the Lubrizol Corp., said in a court deposition.

An OSHA inspection report of the death shows an alarm registered “overload” when a Lubrizol employee dropped a gas meter into the car Godines was in.

Lubrizol and Austin Industrial reached a settlement with Godine’s widow, who filed a wrongful death lawsuit. Lubrizol said it is “absolutely committed to the safety and protection of all employees and external partners who work at our facilities.”

The newspaper used trade publications, news reports, OSHA records and interviews to identify 373 tank and barge cleaning sites. Owners range from individual family-owned facilities to a chain of mostly truck wash facilities in 22 states. Although the sites are nationwide, a majority are in the petrochemical centers of Texas and Louisiana.

OSHA records showed only one-third of the sites were inspected in the past decade, and of those, an average of nine dangerous conditions were determined – most common being cleaners working without correct breathing protection and entering spaces that could be lethally oxygen-deficient.

Federal rules require that a qualified person with a proper meter test each container to make sure oxygen is sufficient and that it’s safe to enter.

“One of the things we do a really poor job of is collecting data,” Dean Wingo, who retired recently as assistant administrator for the OSHA region that includes Texas, told the newspaper.

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