A federal safety agency fined Phillips Petroleum Co. $5.7 million Thursday and cited it for hundreds of safety violations in connection with the October explosion that killed 23 workers at a Texas chemical plant.
Fish Engineering & Construction Inc., which was performing service work under contract, also was cited for safety violations and fined $729,600.
The fine against Phillips is the second-largest ever for a single inspection by the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
In a strongly worded statement, Labor Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole described the Oct. 23 explosion, which also injured more than 130 others, as having the force of a 3.5-magnitude earthquake on the Richter scale. It occurred after a large cloud of highly flammable gases escaped, spread quickly through the Pasadena, Tex., chemical plant and was accidentally ignited.
The plant produced high-density plastic used in milk cartons and other containers.
"This tragedy is magnified by the clear evidence that this explosion was avoidable had recognized safety procedures been followed," said Dole. "OSHA has uncovered internal Phillips documents that called for corrective action but which were largely ignored."
Gerard F. Scannell, head of OSHA, charged inadequate management commitment "to protect the lives and well-being of Phillips employees."
Phillips President Glenn A. Cox responded that based on "preliminary information," the company planned to contest a number of the citations.
"At no time have we compromised the safety of our workers," Cox stated, "and therefore we take issue with OSHA characterizing any of the violations as 'willful' acts."
Phillips was charged with 575 violations deemed "willful" and "serious." Fish Engineering was charged with 193 willful and serious violations.
Willful violations, under OSHA, are "those committed with an intentional disregard of, or plain indifference to" OSHA safety rules. Serious violations are those with "substantial probability" of death or serious harm that the employer knew or should have known about.
The labor union that represents Phillips' workers strongly disagreed even with the number of people OSHA said were injured in the explosion.
In a statement released Thursday, the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers International Union said it has "reliable information" that the casualties totaled 295 workers.
The union also dismissed the proposed fine as representing "no real penalty. Much less will it be a deterrent to future tragedies resulting from current practices."
Beyond this, the union professed doubt that the fine proposed would actually be levied, since "OSHA has a history of making deals."
The union has long objected to companies using contract workers from firms such as Fish Engineering, alleging that they lack the training and experience of union members. Petrochemical industry leaders deny this, as well as that a safety problem exists.
OSHA's Scannell said, however, that the violations were contrary to Phillips' own internal procedures as well as standard industry practice. The history of OSHA inspections of Phillips facilities in the Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Arkansas region also shows 18 deaths and "multiple hospitalizations" even before the Houston explosion.