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Safety is a Goal, Not a Guarantee

By Tim Portz | March 04, 2013

As the final touches were being put on this issue of Biomass Magazine, I found myself in two conversations about hazardous plant incidents that occurred at fortuitous times, at least for the workers at those facilities. One of those conversations occurred in person, and the plant manager I was speaking with produced a photograph on his iPhone for me to view. Looking closely, I realized that I was looking at an i-beam elbowed grotesquely, disfigured by a dryer explosion.

In the other conversation, which was with this month’s Q&A subject, Northeast Pellet’s Matt Bell shared with me the feeling that descended over him when being awakened in the middle of the night to learn that his pellet plant was on fire.

Both of these incidents resulted in halted production, destroyed equipment, insurance claims and rebuilding and repair headaches. Neither, however, resulted in an injury or death. This is the only reason these very serious incidents could be described as fortuitously timed, as they occurred near the middle of the night when the facilities were minimally staffed and the personnel on site were out of harm’s way.

Unfortunately, this is not always the case. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration reports that in 2011, over 4,500 workers lost their lives while on the job; a sobering 13 deaths per day. Even more shocking, the current rate of injuries and deaths have trended down significantly since the formation of OSHA in the early 1970s, when almost 40 workers lost their lives each day.

The improvements and bar raises in worker safety can certainly be assigned to OSHA’s efforts, but not exclusively. OSHA employs 2,200 health and safety inspectors to protect over 130 million American workers, or roughly one inspector for every 59,000 workers. It is clear that protecting American workers, and continuing to improve upon worker safety, falls squarely on the shoulders of employers. Anna Simet’s feature “Bioenergy Plant Precautions” indicates this industry is well aware of where the inherent risks can be found, as well as the technologies that have emerged to manage them. Of course, this doesn't guarantee safety. All that can be guaranteed is a daily commitment to understand the best available practices and technologies to protect our industry’s workers, and to deploy them as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Tim Portz
Vice President of Content & Executive Editor
tportz@bbiinternational.com