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Workplace accidents not quantified by feds, newspaper reports

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An investigation by a Texas news outlet has showed that federal officials do not keep adequate records about businesses that provide services for cleaning the interior of certain railroad tankers. The Houston Chronicle investigation showed that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is not sure which firms actually perform that service, nor are records kept about the number of such companies. Tracking codes for those companies are reportedly inconsistent. That lack of consistency compromises data transparency about railway workplace accidents and fatalities.

Cleaning petrochemical railway cars is certainly a dangerous endeavor. Laborers who perform the work drop steam hoses into the railway cars. That steam helps loosen hardened chemicals along the sides of the tanker. Workers also perform confined-space exercises when they clean the tankers, often crawling through small hatches to clear residue by hand.

Official statements from OSHA representatives indicate that the agency has "no way" to find out how many companies actually perform the tank washing. That is particularly disconcerting because of the potentially dangerous nature of the work -- reporters also discovered that OSHA does not know how many workers have died while cleaning the interior of the petrochemical tanker cars. The newspaper estimates that at least 50 people have died during the past 15 years.

These chemicals reportedly may have long-term effects on worker health. Public health professionals say that some of the employees may not even experience any of the negative health effects until decades down the road. Many employers also ignore safety mandates -- such as testing the oxygen content inside the railway cars -- that can keep workers safe on the job. Those companies should be held accountable for their role in these tragic chemical workplace accidents, which can have devastating effects, up to and including death.

Source: The Brownsville Herald, "Rail tanker cleaning inspections lacking" Associated Press, May. 11, 2014

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