2014 Year in Review: Falls, Recalls, and a Scary Virus
2014 was a year of landmark decisions, calls to action, and unpredictable challenges to overcome. Here are a few of the biggest topics and headlines from the past year.
- By Matt Holden
- Jan 01, 2015
Oil and gas exploration, production, and related industries are some of the most dangerous industries for workers as well as the environment. They found themselves in the news during 2014 for a variety of reasons.
In January, the National Transportation Safety Board issued recommendation letters asking the U.S. Department of Transportation to address the safety risk of transporting crude oil by rail. The letters were issued in coordination with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, something the NTSB had never done. NTSB noted shipments of crude oil by rail had risen by more than 400 percent since 2005. "The large-scale shipment of crude oil by rail simply didn't exist ten years ago, and our safety regulations need to catch up with this new reality," said then-NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman. "While this energy boom is good for business, the people and the environment along rail corridors must be protected from harm."
Three recommendations were issued: The first would require expanded hazardous materials route planning for railroads to avoid populated and other sensitive areas; the second is to develop an audit program to ensure railroads that carry petroleum products have adequate response capabilities to address the worst-case discharges of a train’s entire quantity of product; and the third is to audit shippers and rail carriers to ensure they are properly classifying hazardous materials in transportation and that they have adequate safety and security plans in place.
What prompted these was a disaster six months earlier in Quebec, when a 63 tank cars carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in the town of Lac-Mégantic, spilling almost 6 million liters of oil. Forty-seven people died. DOT and Canadian authorities quickly took steps to require that new tank cars be built with thicker steel and top fittings and head shield protection if the tank cars are used to transport Packing Group I (materials posing great danger ) and II (medium danger) hazardous materials.
In March, the National Safety Council announced that Hersman had been appointed its president and CEO; she stayed on as chairman of the NTSB until April 25. "I look back at the hundreds of investigations and recommendations that have been issued during my tenure at the NTSB, and I have seen the landscape of transportation safety improve before my eyes," Hersman wrote in a statement. "These changes and so many other safety improvements are the result of industry, labor, advocates, regulators and legislators all working in their particular spheres of influence to make travel safer for people that don't always appreciate the risks they face."
In April, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company was criminally charged for the Sept. 9, 2010, San Bruno pipeline explosion that killed eight people. The blast ruptured a 30-inch diameter section of an intrastate natural gas transmission pipeline owned and operated by PG&E, producing a crater 72 feet long and 26 feet wide. The gas ignited, and the fire destroyed 38 homes and damaged 70 other homes. Filed by the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Francisco, the charges allege PG&E's past operating practices violated the federal Pipeline Safety Act in recordkeeping, pipeline integrity management, and identification of pipeline threats. "San Bruno was a tragic accident. We've taken accountability and are deeply sorry," said PG&E Chairman and CEO Tony Earley, who was brought in to lead PG&E in 2011. "We have worked hard to do the right thing for victims, their families, and the community and we will continue to do so. We want all of our customers and their families to know that nothing will distract us from our mission of transforming this 100-plus-year-old system into the safest and most reliable natural gas system in the country."
In September, PG&E was fined $1.4 billion for the explosion by the California Public Utilities Commission. It is the largest safety-related penalty ever levied by the agency, which found that PG&E committed 3,798 violations of state and federal laws, rules, standards, or regulations in connection with the operations and practices of its gas transmission system pipeline.
Construction Industry: Agencies Focus on Fall Hazards
Falls from height are a leading cause of fatal work injuries. OSHA and several partner organizations took action by calling for a construction industry stand-down on falls June 2-6. Afterward, agency officials said the companies that participated in the stand-down employed more than 1 million workers in all.
Three people were killed in Feb. 1 collapse of two cell towers in Clarksburg, W.Va., as contract workers were in the process of replacing diagonal supports. Two contract workers died in the collapse; the third victim was a volunteer firefighter who responded and was approaching the first tower when a second tower nearby also collapsed and struck him. On July 31, OSHA cited the contractor, S and S Communication Specialists Inc., based in Hulbert, Okla., for two serious safety violations and fined the company the maximum amount possible--$7,000 per violation--in connection with the collapse.
In April, OSHA published a major final rule addressing protection for workers performing electric power generation, transmission, and distribution work. OSHA revised the 40-year-old construction standard for electric power line work to make it more consistent with the corresponding general industry standard and also updated the construction and general industry requirements-- such as that host and contract employers must share safety-related information with each other and with employees, and fall harnesses rather than body belts must be worn by workers in aerial lifts. There are revised approach-distance requirements to prevent unprotected workers from getting too close to energized lines and equipment, along with new requirements to protect workers from electric arcs. The agency's chief, Dr. David Michaels, said the rule was long overdue and "will save nearly 20 lives and prevent 118 serious injuries annually. Electric utilities, electrical contractors, and labor organizations have persistently championed these much-needed measures to better protect the men and women who work on or near electrical power lines," he added.
Later in the month, a paper published in CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report highlighted the injuries and deaths resulting from work-related falls from ladders. The paper's authors calculated there were 113 fatal falls, an estimated 15,460 non-fatal injuries resulting in at least one day of lost time, and 34,000 non-fatal injuries treated in hospital emergency departments during 2011 alone. They concluded that ladder fall injuries represent a substantial public health burden of preventable injuries for workers and there is a need for workplace safety research to prevent falls.
Health Care: Ebola Fears Persist
Ebola grabbed international headlines toward the end of 2014 when the first case was confirmed at a Dallas hospital in September. Two nurses who helped to treat that patient, Thomas Eric Duncan, contracted the virus soon after his death, but both recovered.
On Nov. 17 came the second U.S. death related to Ebola when a doctor who had spent time treating Ebola patients in Africa died from the virus. Dr. Martin Salia had been transferred to a Nebraska hospital after contracting the virus in Sierra Leone.
After Duncan's death, National Nurses United called on U.S. hospitals to upgrade emergency preparations for Ebola, citing the Dallas hospital's failed attempts to properly communicate essential information to caregivers about his health status. "At a rally of 1,000 nurses last week in Las Vegas, we warned that it was just a matter of time in an interconnected world that we would see Ebola in the U.S.," NNU Executive Director RoseAnn Demoro said in early October. "Now, everyone should recognize that Texas is not an island either, and as we've heard from nurses across the U.S., hospitals here are not ready to confront this deadly disease."
NNU members from the California Nurses Association met with officials of Kaiser Permanente, a hospital chain in California, and proposed that Kaiser immediately upgrade its pandemic disease preparedness, including planning, communications, hands-on training, and availability of proper protective equipment, including hazmat suits. The NNU then took its recommendation nationwide by calling for all U.S. hospitals to immediately implement a full emergency preparedness plan for Ebola and other disease outbreaks. That plan included full training of hospital personnel, along with proper protocols and training materials for responding to outbreaks; adequate supplies of hazmat suits and other PPE; properly equipped isolation rooms to ensure patients', visitors', and staff's safety; and sufficient staffing to supplement nurses and other health workers who need to care for patients in isolation.
CDC later ordered $2.7 million worth of personal protective equipment to increase Strategic National Stockpile supplies, in order to assist U.S. hospitals caring for Ebola patients. The equipment was configured into 50 kits; all of the purchases were based on PPE guidance for caring for Ebola patients that CDC issued on Oct. 20. The kits can be rapidly delivered from the SNS as requested to hospitals that receive suspected or confirmed Ebola cases but may need additional PPE supplies that otherwise are not immediately available.
The outbreak in West Africa also raised the issue of quarantines and monitoring of health workers and others who could potentially have been exposed. This subject became national news when a nurse from Maine who had treated Ebola patients in West Africa defied quarantine attempts when she returned to the states.
The UN Security Council had declared the Ebola outbreak in West Africa a threat to international peace and security in September, when 193 members of the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted a key resolution and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced a new United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER) would be deployed--marking the first time that the UN has created a mission for a public health emergency. This came only six months after the first case was reported to the World Health Organization, yet in that period more than 2,500 victims had died of the disease. By mid-October, the death toll had risen to 4,500.
Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO's director-general, said the outbreak is likely to be the greatest peacetime challenge the United Nations has ever faced. She called on nations around the world to help in providing for nearly $1 billion in critical early needs the UN had identified. "This is not just a public health crisis. This is a social crisis, a humanitarian crisis, an economic crisis, and a threat to national security well beyond the outbreak zones," she told the Security Council. "For these reasons, Mr. secretary general and I are calling for a UN-wide initiative that draws together all the assets of all relevant UN agencies."
Transportation Safety: Millions of Automobiles Recalled
In February, General Motors announced it had expanded a recall of certain 2003-2007 model year vehicles to fix a problem with their ignition switch that may allow the key to unintentionally move or switch to the "accessory" or "off" position, which turns off the engine and most of the vehicle's electrical components. The problem keeps frontal airbags from deploying properly.
The automaker said the ignition switch problem may have caused or contributed to non-deployment in 31 crashes involving 13 front-seat fatalities. This recall covered 1,367,145 vehicles, but the number more than doubled after three more recalls in March affected 1.5 million vehicles. These recalls also called for a comprehensive internal safety review following the ignition switch recall.
GM agreed in May to pay a record $35 million civil penalty in connection with the ignition switch case and to participate in "unprecedented oversight requirements," according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
On Oct. 20, NHTSA posted a statement urging owners of more than 7 million Toyota, Honda, Mazda, BMW, Nissan, and General Motors vehicles to act immediately on 2013 and 2014 recall notices to replace defective Takata airbags. NHTSA said the message "comes with urgency, especially for owners of vehicles affected by the regional recalls in the following areas: Florida, Puerto Rico, Guam, Saipan, American Samoa, Virgin Islands and Hawaii."
On March 8, a Boeing 777 airliner with 239 people on board lost contact with air traffic controllers while en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The plane was Malaysian Airlines flight MH 370. As of Nov. 17, two ships continued a subsea search for the missing aircraft along a long, narrow arc of the southern Indian Ocean where radar and satellite signals indicate the plane went down. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau is leading the underwater search.
This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.