In September of 2009, laborer Nick Revetta was killed after an accident in a steel mill near Clariton, Pennsylvania. Yet his family, co-workers, and union brothers and sisters are still waiting for justice. A rushed OSHA investigation ended in a single fine and left many with the sense that the government agency is unwilling to go up against U.S. Steel, a major employer in Clariton and similar towns across Western Pennsylvania.
Stocky and stoic, Revetta was working that Thursday as a laborer for a U.S. Steel contractor at the same plant that employed his brother, for the same company that had employed his late father. Shortly before 11:30 a.m., gas leaking from a line in the plant’s Chemicals and Energy Division found an ignition source and exploded, propelling Revetta backward into a steel column and inflicting a fatal blow to his head. Thirty-two years old, he left behind a wife and two young children.
Nick Revetta’s death did not make national headlines. No hearings were held into the accident that killed him. No one was fired or sent to jail.
The Revetta case is troubling because it is endemic. In 2009 4,551 people were killed on the job in America. Nine years of war with Iraq claimed fewer casualties.
Combine the victims of traumatic injuries with the estimated 50,000 people who die annually of work-related diseases and it’s as if a fully loaded Boeing 737-700 crashed every day. Yet the typical fine for a worker death is about $7,900.
“These deaths take place behind closed doors,” says Michael Silverstein, recently retired head of Washington State’s workplace safety agency. “They occur one or two at a time, on private property. There’s an invisibility element.”
When OSHA employee Michael Laughlin became disenchanted with U.S. Steel’s lack of cooperation in the case his supervisor told him to give up and go golfing. Literally:
Michael Laughlin, a safety inspector from the agency’s Pittsburgh office, spent more than two months on the case, working tirelessly to find the cause of the explosion. Yet emails obtained by the Center for Public Integrity show that Laughlin’s requests for help went unanswered, and he was pulled off the investigation by a supervisor striving to meet inspection goals.
“My problem is at what point do we give up quality for quantity,” Laughlin wrote in an appeal to a higher-ranking OSHA official in Philadelphia in November 2009. “I need some guidance because I’m torn and my spirit is broken because of the need to complete this case to the best of my ability.”
The official advised Laughlin to “relax” and use the weekend to “go out and hit some [golf] balls!”
Business went back to usual far quicker than people were comfortable with. The Revetta family was left unrequited and devoid of answers:
Maureen, a 34-year-old special education and speech teacher, struggles to raise the children without their father. Six-year-old Nick craves male attention. “When [the accident] happened, he was 4½,” she says. “I don’t think he knew people died. I said, ‘Daddy got hurt at work and he’s never coming home.’”
Around the time of the incident, U.S. Steel was rebounding from the recession and over-eager to produce:
Nick was caught in that rush. Power Piping was brought in to help refurbish three gas processing equipment. “You could see it every day,” says Patrick, a US Steel employee whose job at the time was to help control emissions from the coke oven batteries. “There was just too much pressure. They had to have that production, man. Nick, he kept telling me they were shortcutting stuff, putting pressure on them to hurry up and get the job finished. I said, ‘Just watch your ass.’”
OSHA inspector Laughlin’s voluminous notes reflect the frenetic work environment for US Steel contractors such as Power Piping. “They were pushing the manpower…US Steel pushing…pushing people,” Laughlin wrote while transcribing one worker interview.
This case shows the need for tougher penalties to be enforced by OSHA. Prohibitive penalties that shift the value proposition (i.e. adding worth to an employee’s life by raising the price a company should pay if they are responsible for that employee’s death) are a must. Harming animals is technically considered more grave than a worker loss:
Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, a willful safety violation that causes the death of a worker is a misdemeanor, punishable by no more than six months in prison. Contrast this with the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, which carries a one-year sentence for killing or merely harassing one of the animals on public lands.
OSHA chief Michaels says that statutory changes, enabling OSHA to assess stiffer civil penalties and making it easier to criminally prosecute wrongdoers, are needed.
“There’s no question in my mind that higher penalties would encourage employers to eliminate hazards before workers are hurt,” he says. “I think all of us recognize that fear of prison focuses the mind.”
To learn more about this story and the steps that the Revetta’s have taken along the way to get justice read the entire I Watch News article.