Is a Lack of Funding & Manpower Hurting Workplace Safety?

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WOODS CROSS, Utah (ABC4 UTAH) – Everyone wants a safe workplace employees expect it and most bosses strive to achieve it. But with more than 80,000 companies in Utah, and just two state agencies reviewing all the environmental and safety concerns. Is the system really preventing an accident waiting to happen? ABC4 Utah examines the responsibility and the risks in this special report.

David, who asked us to hide his identity, works for a tanker company. His job is to load-up the final product, in this case gas, produced here at Holly Refinery in Woods Cross. It’s a job with risks.

“There’s product that sits on the ground. Especially in the pictures I sent you in Bay 1 where there’s a diesel gas spill. Close to 60 gallons that just sitting right in the bay and they expect us to drive trucks over this especially with hot engines?” asked David.

So David started taking pictures and videos; a lot of them. He shared that information with the Utah Occupational Safety and Health Division. “They’ll go to the site, they’ll present a copy of the complaint to the supervisor and they’ll go ahead and do the inspection right then,” said Utah Occupational Safety and Health Division Director Chris Hill.

That’s the process for UOSH investigators according to the Director Chris Hill. This is the letter, the agency sent back to David saying they did not find any violations. “They went back. They actually went to the wrong place the first time. After 20 minutes of waiting, they came up, and by that time, they had gotten the place picked up,” said David.

A DEQ report from October 2015 corroborates his concerns. It reads, “There are 34 chronically leaking valves that are awaiting a unit turnaround for repair.” We showed the videos David sent us to Bryce Bird, Director of Air Quality at the Department of Environmental Equality. “It would not be in compliance with our regulations that require a vapor tight seal and a leak tight seal whenever there’s loading or unloading of those cargo tanks,” said Bryce Bird, Director of Air Quality at the Department of Environmental Equality.

We showed the same videos and images to Holly Refinery Environmental Manager Michael Astin. He says everyone at Holly is responsible to report any concerns.

“We have two full time people, that’s all they do. They have an instrument and they go around and monitor for leaks in valves,” said Holly Refinery Environmental Manager Michael Astin. In this DEQ report, the state investigator found a number of leaks. Holly has 45 days to fix them and self-report it and Bird admits, that opens the door to dishonesty.

“There’s always that opportunity and we have had some cases in the past and at that point it is a willful and knowing violation which is subject to criminal penalties as well,” said Bird.

Astin says, not on his watch. “Honesty is a requirement. There are a lot of things that are required by law. Honesty is one of them. So we don’t really have the option to not report things. That would be too much of a liability for the company,” said Astin.

It’s a liability for the safety of everyone who works at Holly Refinery and all of the businesses and houses that are nearby. If an explosion happens, it’s not just the company at risk. With so many lives at stake, one might think there’s an army of investigators both state and federal.

“We have 15 people to go out and inspect 1.3 million employees in the state of Utah,” said Hill. Hill says to get more staff would mean more funding which they haven’t received in years. “We just don’t have the manpower to go out to every single business to double check on everything,” said Hill.

That’s why companies are allowed and required to self-report. “We will require pictures or receipts of things. If they’re engineering controls, pictures of the engineering drawings. If they buy machine guarding for whatever piece of equipment we will require to see those receipts, pictures, and verify it that way,” said Hill. And Holly Refinery has a history of honest self-reporting. Just last year, holly self-reported emissions violations. It came with a $1.2 million dollar fine.

“Normally when you self report, the EPA just requires you to fix the problem. But in this case they also assigned a fine and they wanted us to take some extraordinary steps to reduce volatile organics in other areas in order to offset the gasoline that we produced,” said Astin.

But David argues there are more serious violations still not being addressed. “This is dangerous. I’m not going to risk my life. I have a wife and three kids. I’m not going to risk my life of having some kind of incident,” said David.

Holly Refinery followed up with Good4Utah and requested copies of the images and videos sent to us to further investigate the claims. The DEQ also tells us they’ll send another investigator out as well. If you have any concerns at your job about safety or environmental impact, click here to report a complaint.

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