Shared from the 5/7/2019 Houston Chronicle eEdition

Speak up for safety

Plant workers must report problems they see.

If you see something, say something.

That’s good advice in this era when airports, train stations, schools and even churches have become settings for terrorist acts. It’s a good slogan for neighborhoods trying to work with police to reduce crime.

It’s also what you should do at work, especially if it’s at a job site where dangerous chemicals and materials are stored or handled. If you see something, say something before a tragedy occurs. It’s no longer safe, if it ever was, to count on companies to spot and respond to safety risks on their own, or to just assume Texas’ overly lenient regulators will do their jobs.

Speaking up and insisting on a response might have prevented the deadly fire last month at the KMCO plant in Crosby. Three contract workers who say they were injured have filed a lawsuit accusing company officials of knowing about a leaky valve before the explosion that the defective device may have caused.

If it’s true that managers knew of the leaky valve beforehand and ignored it, then it’s possible that plant worker James Earl Mangum, 27, of Daisetta might still be alive had they addressed it.

Ignoring employees’ safety concerns risks tragic incidents such as the fire at KMCO, but it also increases the risk of future incidents, too. Too often, plant workers won’t report a problem to a supervisor because past allegations have fallen on deaf ears. And workers who might report concerns to outside authorities have to weigh both the risks to their jobs and the likelihood that officials will act.

That may have been a problem at both the KMCO plant and the March 17 fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Co. chemical storage facility in Deer Park. Both facilities have been cited numerous times over the years for violating air and water pollution regulations. That’s evidence that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality isn’t doing its job.

A recent report says a chemical fire or explosion occurs almost every six weeks in the Houston region. Elena Craft of the Environmental Defense Fund says that’s because “the state agency responsible for ensuring chemical plant safety is missing in action.”

If Texans can’t trust the TCEQ to protect them, they’ll stop reporting violations. That only ups the risks for all of us.

So, it was good to see Harris County Commissioners Court approve the hiring of four new prosecutors to investigate environmental crimes. The two prosecutors currently assigned to that duty handle 400 to 500 cases a year, but most involve smaller companies or individuals accused of illegal dumping and water pollution.

With more lawyers in that division, District Attorney Kim Ogg can look at bigger targets. Her office has already charged ITC with five misdemeanor counts for releasing chemicals into the Tucker Bayou during the fire. Ogg took a similarly aggressive stance by charging Arkema with failing to properly store highly combustible chemicals that ignited and polluted the air during Hurricane Harvey.

That same aggressiveness should lead the county to invest more in the Pollution Control Services Department. In February, it received a 28 percent budget increase, about $1.2 million, but the Deer Park and KMCO fires occurring within three weeks of each other stretched its resources to monitor air and water quality.

County leaders have been smart to make other improvements, too. The pollution department didn’t have a website to give the public real-time air quality data during the ITC fire, so Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo got an ad hoc group of county employees to design one. They did it in eight hours. Hidalgo also directed the county health department to hire 11 private contractors at a cost of $375,000 to help monitor the air and bill ITC for the expense. In all, the county planned to bill ITC nearly $2 million for expenses, including costs incurred by emergency and law enforcement agencies.

Making environmental rules breakers pay for their crimes is crucial. That can happen only if agencies at every level of government charged with monitoring chemical and other dangerous facilities do their jobs. They can’t put job creation above environmental protection. Voters should show the door to politicians who urge officials to join their club of corporate sycophants.

Meanwhile, more workers need to find their voice and remember: when you see something, say something. Don’t be afraid to tell a supervisor that you noticed a leaky valve or improperly stored materials or inadequate safety procedures. Then say if he or she doesn’t report the problem to the appropriate regulatory agency, you will. Say you would rather be fired than become a fatality.

Some workplace incidents are unavoidable. Others never would have occurred if someone who saw something, said something. Anyone can do that. Just open your mouth and speak to whoever will listen. Don’t let your silence seal your fate.

See this article in the e-Edition Here