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Deaths and safety violations found within OSHA's 'model' workplaces

07/11/2011 11:42 am ET | Updated Sep 10, 2011

Part of a series,"Model Workplaces, Imperiled Workers,"by the Center for Public Integrity's iWatch News. The first article is here.

On a December night in 2009, something went wrong with boiler B28 at Valero's oil refinery in Texas City, Texas. Technician Tommy Manis and his co-workers weren't sure just what it was. They had tried more than a dozen times to get the boiler started. They weren't aware of the dangerous levels of gas building up inside, ready to ignite.

Manis had never worked on B28 before. His job took him to different parts of the plant, so he may not have known the boiler's history: During the previous 15 months, there had been two explosions inside its hulking furnace. After the second, Valero determined gas had built up and ignited. Now, with Manis and his co-workers nearby, gas again flowed unchecked into the boiler.

Oil refineries are inherently dangerous, and the industry's record of failing to curb hazards prompted the federal government in 2007 to start subjecting them to more intense scrutiny in a special enforcement program. But Tommy Manis and his wife, Laura, trusted that this refinery was safer. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the nation's chief overseer of worker safety, had formally certified the Valero refinery as a "model workplace" with an exemplary record and an impeccable safety program exceeding that required by regulators.

Over eight months, the Center for Public Integrity's iWatch News examined the nation's "model workplaces" and the fatal lapses that sometimes led to workers' deaths. This series of stories relies on thousands of pages of government documents and inspection reports; multiple databases of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration; and interviews with current and former OSHA officials, union representatives, company officials, accident victims' families and workplace safety and health experts. Among the challenges in piecing together the story of OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program: The agency's inconsistent injury and illness records, incomplete data on fatalities, and heavy redaction of case files obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

This story was written and reported by Chris Hamby, with contributions from senior reporter Jim Morris, as well as Mona Iskander of PBS' "Need to Know" TV program, which aired a version of this story.