WASHINGTON — Two days after a memorial service for the seven workers killed in an explosion at an Anacortes, Wash., oil refinery, the head of the federal agency that oversees worker safety said Washington state has a solid program for inspecting dangerous workplaces.
But David Michaels, the assistant labor secretary who head the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, admitted during a congressional hearing Tuesday that there were gaps in federal law that needed to be closed.
Under questioning from Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Michaels said no one is keeping track of the safety records of companies that operate refineries in multiple states.
"We don't know," Michaels said. "It is a weakness in the law."
Though the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee hearing focused on the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in West Virginia, which killed 29 miners, Murray zeroed in on the deadly explosion at the Tesoro Corp. refinery in Anacortes on April 2. It was the deadliest refinery accident since 2005, when 15 people died and 170 were injured at a Texas refinery.
"Nothing we can do can bring back your loved ones," Murray said, calling the Anacortes refinery blast a "terrible tragedy."
But Murray said the Tesoro refinery was cited for 17 serious safety violations in 2009. Washington is one of 26 states with a state-run occupational safety and health program approved by the U.S. Department of Labor.
Michaels said OSHA has increased oversight of refineries in the past several years.
"We think they are extremely dangerous," Michaels said. "We are extremely concerned about oil refineries."
While other states have not followed the federal example, Washington state has increased its oversight of refineries.
"Washington state has a good OSHA system and replicates what we do," Michaels said.
Michaels said there were other shortcomings in federal worker safety laws, including weak civil fines and criminal penalties. The top fine OSHA can levy is $7,000, and that hasn't been raised in 20 years, he said.
"The fines and penalties on environmental matters are tougher," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the committee chairman.
Michaels also said that OSHA couldn't remove workers or shut down a dangerous work site without a court order.
"The OSHA law is very weak," he said, adding that the Obama administration supports toughening the federal regulations. "American workers still face unacceptable hazards."
Asked about OSHA's reputation for "nitpicking," Michaels said the agency has 2,000 inspectors to visit 8 million job sites, and that 80 percent of the violations it finds were serious.
"We don't have time to nitpick," he said.