Erring on the Side of Disaster

A utility company and two federal agencies failed to appreciate the value of vigilance and wind up paying a heavy price.

The creation of a safety culture is a topic discussed at nearly every major occupational safety conference these days. In its simplest form, a safety culture represents the value that an organization places on safety and the actions that its employees and managers take to operate in a safe fashion. If a company treats safety as the program of the month, no employee with the title of "safety manager" is going to find much success.

Our cover story this month examines the self-acknowledged failure by FirstEnergy Corp. to develop an effective safety culture at its Davis-Besse nuclear power plant in Ohio. In March 2002, that failure led to the discovery of a large hole in the reactor's pressure vessel head, a carbon steel plate more than 6 inches thick.

As attorney and former NRC inspector Howard Whitcomb told Managing Editor Sandy Smith, "If the head had ruptured at Davis-Besse, the collapse of the containment structure and widespread radioactive contamination could have created a health hazard for thousands of people ..."

While it is troubling that officials at a nuclear power plant failed to fully appreciate the need for a vibrant safety culture, it is equally troubling that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission also failed in its oversight role. In fact, the U.S. General Accounting Office last year found a number of "systemic" problems in NRC's monitoring of nuclear safety.

Both FirstEnergy and NRC say they have learned important lessons from the incident. We'll let you judge for yourself after reading "Davis-Besse: A Plan for Change or a Worst-Case Scenario?"

There is reason to believe that another federal safety agency has failed in its oversight role. Medical tests have revealed that at least three OSHA employees have developed blood abnormalities associated with beryllium exposure, according to a report published in The Chicago Tribune.

The OSHA workers were likely exposed to the widely used metal while conducting safety inspections. Experts say approximately 50 percent of those who test positive for beryllium sensitization may develop beryllium disease, a lung ailment that can be fatal. While there is no cure for beryllium disease, treatment is available for those who are sensitized.

Last year, after years of delay, the agency offered beryllium blood tests to all current employees. The offer did not extend to retired inspectors who had been exposed to beryllium, nor to workers who work for state plan states.

An OSHA spokesperson said that as of Jan. 14, 301 OSHA employees had requested the tests for beryllium sensitization and 271 had been completed. Individuals with a positive test result are told at once, but even though anyone can request the test at any time, the agency has decided not to release cumulative test results to its employees or the public until testing is complete for the first 301 who asked for it. The spokesperson estimated this should take place by the middle of this month.

"In the meantime, we are making every effort to ensure the health and safety of our work force," the spokesperson said.

A number of recommendations about beryllium were addressed to Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao in a Jan. 17 letter from Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility:

  • OSHA should determine how much beryllium the first wave of sensitized workers was exposed to. Ruch argued that it is important to do so, as workers with exposure levels greater than those who are sensitized should be encouraged by OSHA to undergo testing. Even though the agency has beryllium exposure information for its employees, it has thus far chosen not to share it with them.
  • OSHA should inform all retired inspectors and all state plan inspectors who were exposed to comparable amounts of beryllium, and offer them the blood test.
  • OSHA should share with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) information about sites with high levels of beryllium, so that EPA inspectors who were exposed can also be tested.
  • OSHA must issue within 12 months a proposal to reduce the permissible exposure limit for beryllium.

Through its Voluntary Protection Program and alliances, OSHA preaches the value of a strong safety culture. In the light of the beryllium findings, it may need to determine if its own culture is sufficiently strong.

This month, we are proud to debut "Protection Update," the International Safety Equipment Association's quarterly newsletter, within our pages. ISEA is the trade association for manufacturers of personal protective equipment, gas detection and other safety equipment. But it is also an organization deeply involved with the development of safety standards and the promotion of workplace safety. We hope you will find it good reading.

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