Sadly, many, if not most, of these deaths could be avoided. And if our news outlets paid as much attention to the circumstances and causes of these deaths—if the histories were dug into and the connections explored, fatalities would no longer be an acceptable part of many jobs.

The March 23 explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery that took the lives of 15 contract workers who were gathered for a meeting in a trailer is a case in point—and the Houston Chronicle’s continuing coverage of the tragedy a surprisingly admirable effort.

First, a rundown of the hellish details and history.

Shortly after one in the afternoon on March 23, at a BP refinery operating in a small city on the southeast side of Houston, a series of at least five explosions took the lives of 15 people and injured more than 100 others. Preliminary investigations suggest numerous and long-running violations of safe operating procedures—including items cited by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspectors over the last year—contributed to and exacerbated, if not directly caused, the chain of explosions, according to OSHA reports, articles in the Houston Chronicle, Galveston County News, and other media.

On April 11, the Houston Chronicle reported that the refinery, operated by Amoco until BP bought them out a little more than a year ago, has been the site of four serious accidents and had been cited by OSHA for at least 11 separate safety violations since 1988, the year the isomerization unit ultimately responsible for the explosion was installed. These incidents include the September 2004 steam-burn deaths of two contract pipefitters, the May 2004 falling death of a BP employee, and injuries to a number of workers from explosions or leaks of flammable chemicals on the one block-sized refinery site.

BP reported 11 total fatalities at its worldwide facilities for 2004, five of them at North American plants. Additionally, a 2003 study conducted by the US Public Interest Research Group (US PIRG) found that BP had more accidents at its facilities than any other member of the American Chemical Council, a business consortium of over 130 companies, including Rochester’s serial polluter Kodak. Over a 13 year period BP had 3,565 accidents, according to the report.

BP North America, the parent company of BP Amoco, which owns the Texas City facility, has been hit with well over $300,000 in fines for safety violations in the past 12 months. In addition, little more than a week before the explosion, BP West Coast Products—also owned by BP North America—agreed to a record $81 million settlement with California safety inspectors over pollution emanating from its Carson City, CA plant. The deal includes a mandatory $20 million in facility upgrades, with the remainder going to local and state agencies forced to deal with the fallout, according to a statement released the day after the two sides came to terms.

Unfortunately, labor and occupational safety advocates say, fines—even those which reach the tens of millions of dollars—do little to keep companies honest as they pursue higher profits and lower operating margins.

Texas City is the sight of what is generally thought of as America’s worst industrial accident ever. On the morning of April 16, 1947 a small fire broke out on the Grandcamp, a ship that contained 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate at the time. It soon exploded killing at least five hundred and wounding some 3,500. Twenty-eight firefighters that had responded to the emergency, perished. The lack of fire safety precautions aboard the Grancamp (the initial flames were doused with a gallon of drinking water) and the grossly negligent safety standards governing the hazardous cargo of the ship, were, in hindsight, obvious warning signs. These kinds of warning signs, like the lessons of the 1947 disaster, are still seemingly ignored today.

The record of serious incidents in Texas isn’t limited to BP—the Associated Press compiled a half-century history of work related deaths the day after the explosion, coming up with a list of 674 deaths and hundreds of injuries since 1947—nor are serious workplace safety violations solely a Texas problem. But Sam Munn, president of the Galveston County AFL-CIO, said the Texas City BP refinery always had problems.

“I think they [BP] inherited a situation from Amoco,” said Munn, who worked across the street at a Dow Chemical plant formerly owned by Union Carbide for 45 years. “When I worked at Union Carbide [now a Dow Chemical plant], the only thing that separated the two plants was a two lane road. They had so many problems, we used to joke that if they didn’t have a fire by ten in the morning, someone would start one.”

But Munn doesn’t see BP as much different from any number of corporations in this country and around the world. Nor does he think the threat of financial penalties does anything to ensure companies train employees well and provide a safe work environment.

“I would respectfully submit to you that most companies get by with low dollar fines and do just fine,” Munn said. “We ought to have criminal penalties for these people. Fifteen people died and its yesterday’s news already.”

Munn said he hasn’t seen or heard of any evidence that BP is trying to hinder the investigation or cover up their negligence—still, it can and has happened in the past. “That’s what some of these companies do. They go in and ‘clean-sheet’ the place,” he added.

By the time that 15th worker was pulled from the wreckage, the Texas City refinery had taken 18 lives in less than a year and caused an uncounted number of injuries. Many, maybe all, could have been prevented but for a corporate culture and a national atmosphere inured to everyday workplace tragedies, according to the Reverend Diana Dale, director of the Houston Council of Occupational Safety and Health (Houston COSH), a two-year-old affiliate of the National Network of Councils on Occupational Safety and Health.

People, especially those in small Southern and Midwestern communities, have grown to accept the deaths of workers as the price to be paid for keeping or attracting decent paying jobs around in the age of globalism, consolidation, and profit-maximization, Dale said. It’s this, she said, that has allowed first Amoco and then BP to get away with violating the law while suffering little more than meaningless fines and hand slaps. And the problem certainly isn’t relegated to Galveston County Texas.

“A large part of the problem is the difficulty keeping these things on the radar screen,” said Dale, who also serves as president of the non-profit Work Life Institute, an organization dedicated to easing the stress and dangers and conflicts that are part of everyday working life. “What happened in Texas City is the same thing that happens all over. What we end up getting is a sort of embedded cultural history where there’s the smell of progress and people say, ‘well, these things happen.’ It’s an accepted cultural fatalism.”

Comparing the situation to that of the many small Appalachian mining communities, Dale, who has spent time as a nuclear plant safety inspector, said companies operating chemical plants, refineries, and similar operations never developed the same sort of safety regimen that was thrust upon the nuclear industry following the very public and political fallout from Three Mile Island.

“After the presidential report came out, the nuclear companies were forced to act.” Dale said, referring to the nuclear incident. “Since then, their track record has been, in general, very good.” She attributes a good deal of that record to three key things missing in the refinery equation, low worker turnover rates, intensive cross-job training, and “a culture of self reporting, which leads to public admissions of fault and safer operations.”

Nuclear plants are usually found away from urban areas, in large part due to the well-known dangers inherent in their operation, added Dale. This is an important factor to weigh when trying to understand the nearly blind eye turned toward safety abuses at refineries and similar chemical plants.

The pool of willing workers is larger for refineries. Contractors abound. The jobs and commerce provided are viewed as a boon to the surrounding area. A company can do serious damage by pulling up stakes. They are, Dale said, “hand and jowl with metropolitan areas.”

This very relationship, though, should be challenged, labor safety advocates like Dale say. In an effort to do so, her organization is now working with other national COSH’s, labor groups, and grassroots organizations on a project called the Stop the Corporate Killers Campaign.

Formed little more than a year ago, the Campaign counts about 20 different organizations around the country as members, according to Roger Cook, director of the Western New York COSH (WNYCOSH) and an early catalyst for the Campaign. Their goal? Criminal prosecution of companies that violate health and safety laws. If corporations want the same rights as people, they should at least share some of the personal responsibility for their actions.

“We’re looking for ways to hold company managers accountable for their actions,” Cook said. “There are so many violations that end in fines, and the fines just aren’t enough to keep companies honest.”

In announcing their intention to lobby for legislation to hold corporations accountable for their actions, the Stop the Corporate Killers Campaign issued an April 20 statement calling for “local prosecutors to bring criminal homicide prosecutions against corporations that flagrantly and consistently violate safety and health laws and whose actions result in worker deaths.” From there, the fledgling effort hopes to put pressure on the federal government to pass tougher penalties as well, according to statements by representatives of the group.

Depending on the outcome of a teleconference of the Campaign’s board taking place as this paper goes to press, BP could be the very first target of a concerted grassroots effort to change the way governments deal with serial violators.

“Under current law, a prosecutor has to show that you intentionally violated an OSHA workplace standard,” said Michael Wright, the director of health and safety for the United Steel Workers of America in a statement released by the national network of COSH’s. “You have to show that that violation resulted in the death of a worker. And then the most the prosecutor can get for a sentence is six months in jail.”

“If you harass a wild burro on federal land you can get five years. If you damage coral reef you get five years,” Wright added.

The violations continue to mount as investigators struggle to get at the cause of the March explosion. Poor training, lack of proper safety procedures, and equipment in disrepair all contributed to the tragedy at Texas City. But, Munn, Dale, Cook, and others say, it could happen anywhere. And it will unless something in this country changes.

But people are busy. They’re busy with work and with family; with American Idol and Nanny 9-1-1. Resources are thin. OSHA’s budget is pinched and the AFL-CIO can no longer support a separate health and safety department. Grants monies are drying up.

And workers keep dying. It is, after all, a matter of priorities. By Brendan Coyne

Mired in the near-perfectly manufactured dramas of Laci Peterson, Terry Schiavo, and—fleetingly—Jennifer Wilbanks for the past year, its not surprising that our national media establishment largely glossed-over the casualties taken in the name of corporate profits at the third largest refinery in the country almost two months ago. It is, in fact, surprising the event garnered any national coverage at all, considering that six to seven thousand workers die every year in workplace mishaps.