In February 2007, David Gootkin came to the state Capitol in Hartford to testify in favor a bill prompted by his brother Robert’s death the year before at Covanta’s waste-to-energy plant in Wallingford. The bill, which eventually was adopted, requires that operators of solid waste facilities have at least two employees or a camera in the work area when waste is being fed into a hopper.
The previous May, Robert Gootkin, a 15-year employee of Covanta’s plant, was pinned against a wall and crushed to death by a hopper lid. David told lawmakers that his brother had been working a 12-hour overnight shift alone when the accident occurred, and that it took facility personnel 30 minutes to respond to alarms that went off. As a former employee of the plant himself, David complained that workers were being exposed to unnecessary risks. Covanta lobbied against the bill, saying it took adequate precautions.
“My brother’s death was an accident waiting to happen,” said David, who left the company before Robert died.
At the time of the accident, Covanta of Wallingford was vying for elite recognition as a model workplace from the federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration [OSHA]. In 2008, the plant was awarded that recognition for its commitment to worker safety. It retains that status today, despite citations by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection for excess dioxin emissions and failing to properly audit its emissions monitoring equipment, and a follow-up lawsuit last summer by the state attorney general for continued violations.
Covanta’s Wallingford plant is one of 15 worksites in Connecticut that have gained special “star” status in OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Programs, or VPP, which recognizes select companies as model workplaces that demonstrate the “highest levels” of employee protection. The program rewards worksites deemed “self-sufficient in their ability to control workplace hazards.”
In return for a commitment to safety and health, VPP companies get an exemption from regular inspections and are not punished for standard violations if the problems are promptly corrected. Once in VPP’s star program, companies are re-evaluated every three to five years.
A C-HIT review found that at least six of the state’s designated VPP worksites have had significant safety or other workplace lapses in recent years. In some cases, the problems occurred before the companies were accepted as VPP sites; in others, they occurred afterwards.
Among them is the Millstone nuclear power station in Waterford, which was granted entry into the VPP program in 2004 and retains that status today. Last November, the plant was cited by OSHA for a serious safety violation carrying a proposed penalty of $6,000. OSHA records reveal that employees who may have been exposed to hazardous fumes in June 2010 were not provided with adequate medical attention “until weeks after the incident.” The citation was later deleted.
Also last year, an inspection report by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission [NRC] found that Millstone violated federal requirements five times in three months, including an incident in which plant operators took five days, instead of eight hours, to report a malfunctioning unit to the NRC. The NRC rapped the operators for failing to “err on the side of caution” in decision-making. In November, Millstone again was cited by the NRC for two fire–safety violations.
Ken Holt, a spokesman for Millstone owner Dominion, said the company is committed to safety, adding that some of the NRC violations were self-identified. He said the fume incident cited by OSHA was not handled “as sharply as we should have.” But overall, he said: “We have a very robust corrective action program.”
Nationally, more than 2,400 worksites have gained entry into OSHA’s VPP program, which relies on companies to self-police worker safety, in cooperation with regulators. A number of the sites have experienced serious safety problems – including violations that contributed to at least 47 deaths nationwide since 2000 – often without consequences, according to a review by the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News.
The safety lapses have led some critics to question whether VPP recognition—a valuable public relations tool for companies—is being implemented as it was intended. From 2000 to 2008, the number of VPP worksites tripled, despite warnings from government auditors that such ambitious expansion could threaten the program’s integrity. Today, OSHA continues to expand the program.
“In the absence of policies that require its regional offices to document . . . actions taken in response to fatalities and serious injuries at VPP sites, OSHA cannot ensure that only qualified sites participate in the program,” investigators from the Government Accountability Office said in a 2009 report. “Some sites with serious safety and health deficiencies that contributed to fatalities have remained in the program, which has affected its integrity.”
A spokesman for the regional OSHA office referred questions about Connecticut’s VPP companies to the agency’s headquarters. Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, told iWatch News that while the VPP program relies on companies “acting in good faith,” it remains a useful tool in creating safe workplaces.
Citations, Penalties Rare
In Connecticut, four Covanta plants, including the one in Wallingford, have been granted VPP star status.
Among the others is Covanta’s Bristol site, where a boiler explosion in March 2011 injured two workers. Work was being done at the plant, which was in a partial shutdown mode, when high-pressure steam burst through a tube’s metal casing.
Records indicate that OSHA opened an investigation into the explosion on the day after it occurred—then closed the case on the same day, finding no violations.
The Bristol plant, which was accepted into the VPP program in 2006, also was the subject of a 2010 finding by the National Labor Relations Board that it had threatened and punished workers for union activities.
Jill Stueck, a spokeswoman for New Jersey-based Covanta Energy, said the company’s “strong safety culture is a core value for all workers” and is a top corporate priority, “both within our facilities and within the communities we serve.” Forty of 51 Covanta sites have achieved VPP status, she said.
At the Wallingford site, OSHA did not fine the company after Gootkin’s death, with investigators ruling that Covanta had taken proper precautions to protect workers who were cleaning hoppers.
David Gootkin said he was not surprised that the Wallingford plant received special status and has retained it.
“When I was there, they were very good at covering up things from OSHA,” he said. “I got so fed up, trying to bring up health and safety issues. No one cared.”
Cheryl Thibeault, business manager of the Wallingford plant, said the company was found blameless in Gootkin’s death and is committed to policing worker safety, in cooperation with OSHA.
“We’re really proud of our facilities that have won this honor,” she said. “Employee participation is a big part of the VPP program, and that’s something we pride ourselves on.”
Covanta is working closely with the state on modifications to the Wallingford plant to address the recent emissions problems, Stueck said.
Staying in the VPP Club
In addition to Covanta, other VPP “star” sites that have had safety and health problems include:
• Two Wheelabrator waste-to-energy facilities, in Lisbon and Bridgeport. The Lisbon plant was granted VPP status in 2003 and recertified in 2006. In April 2007, records show, OSHA investigated an accident at the plant in which an employee was injured during a boiler cleaning. The worker suffered bruises, contusions and abrasions to his face. No violations were found or fines imposed. The Lisbon plant’s VPP status was re-approved this year.
The Bridgeport facility received VPP recognition in 2005—about 18 months after the company was cited by OSHA for violations related to workers lacking proper safety equipment while working from an aerial lift, records show. OSHA fined the company $1,000.
Melissa Lohnes, a spokeswoman for Wheelabrator, said all but one of the company’s 22 plants have attained VPP recognition, with injury rates “decreasing across the boards” because of the company’s strong commitment to safety. Of the incidents in Connecticut, she said, “Unfortunately, we’re human, so accidents do happen. It’s not something we take lightly.”
• Hamilton Sundstrand in Windsor Locks earned VPP status in 2006. Two years earlier, the company was cited by OSHA for violating three workplace safety standards – ensuring that hazardous chemical containers were properly labeled and marked with warnings, and using proper respiratory protection. OSHA proposed a $2,275 fine, but the penalty was later deleted.
In 2007, Hamilton Sundstrand was punished by regulators again – this time for violating the Clean Air Act by discharging chemicals into the Farmington River, in excess of permit limits, and concealing or altering reported data. The company “admitted conduct by its employees that was incredibly reckless and potentially dangerous,” US Attorney Kevin O’Connor said at the time.
Dan Coulom, a spokesman for Hamilton Sundstrand, said the company is strongly committed to a safe work environment. He called the Clean Air violations “totally unrelated” to issues of workplace safety.
• Northrop Grumman of Norwalk was cited and fined $2,500 by OSHA in 2004 for a serious safety violation that led to an employee’s arm being severely fractured. OSHA investigators said the company wrongfully exposed workers to hazards that could cause injury or death when it performed a test on tanks, using pressurized air, and failed to protect workers from a tank explosion.
Northrop Grumman received VPP star status in 2008. Since then, no OSHA violations have been reported at the Norwalk site.
This story was reported in collaboration with the Center for Public Integrity iWatch News. To read the national story click here.