Editorial: Legislature must take fertilizer regulations seriously after West explosion

WorkplaceSafetyOn April 17, 2013, Central Texas shook as a fertilizer production facility just north of Waco exploded from the interaction of ammonium nitrate with a fire. Most Texans remember that day well.

We can recall who we were with, what we were doing and the initial feelings of fear in the uncertainty of what might happened next. Two days earlier, a bomb had been detonated at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. We were all on edge.

Just over two years later, West is recovering, but little has changed in the safety regulations of fertilizer plants. The devastation that occurred in West could happen again. Because many people —business owners, legislators and, in general, the public outside of West’s immediate community — have all but forgotten the tragedy.

While there are still good people fighting for industry and legislative reform to take place, it is troubling to see the public and our business and political leaders jump so quickly to the next hot button issue. It is time to address the issue of reforming safety concerns in the fertilizer production industry.

First, it is the corporation’s job to protect its employees. Specifically, it is a business owner’s personal responsibility to make sure each person in his or her factory is protected from harm. Safety — above profit, above return on investment, above brand image — should be an owner’s highest priority. Without appropriately safe working conditions, it is reckless endangerment to place employees on production floors.

However, most business owners have a lot on their plates. They don’t have time to always check the factory floor every day. There is much to be done in his or her c-suite, and factory floor employees are easily replaceable.

This is a sticky statement to make. Few business owners — relatively few people, for that matter — want the government involved in their day-to-day lives. But, while workers and victims of safety oversight cry out for reform and bosses can’t seem to be bothered to answer, it becomes the state’s duty to make sure its citizens are properly protected.

Because it seems that owners are not interested in placing a priority on safety, it therefore falls in the lap of the Legislature to regulate their businesses.

The Texas Legislature meets every two years, which means its members have had two years to compose legislation on mandated safety requirements at fertilizer plants and a year to formally meet and discuss it. But there’s nothing to show.

Is it that they would rather debate open-carry? Is it that they would rather score political points from business owners and disregard the possibility of state intervention?

Whatever the reason, it is unacceptable that the state should leave any number of its citizens unprotected.

Former Gov. Rick Perry’s administration could have finished strong by making it a platform priority to fix the brokenness and oversight. And current Gov. Greg Abbott’s administration could have entered going to bat for the citizens of Texas who go into unsafe jobs every day. Surely, neither governor has wasted or is wasting his time in office, but if people are in danger, the leader should step up to secure respect is ensured for all. Especially when the incident was broadcast so prominently at the time of the plant’s explosion.

People who work in other fertilizer plants and many similar industries go to work every day in environments that are neither safe nor healthy. People should feel safe at their job. Since this is not a reality, neither the business owners’ nor legislators’ jobs are done.

Most importantly, if the Texas Legislature is going to make a change for the better, it must do so quickly. The last day of its regular session is in just a month — on June 1. Bills like HB417 are calling for the regulations on the storage of hazardous materials to be more defined and enforceable, even extending the mishandling of the materials to a criminal offense. It seems, though, that the state legislature is more concerned with discussing around more popular topics.

To industrialists, to senators, to representatives and to the governor: Fix the safety regulationsin an  industry that has already exhibited dangerous possibilities before another West-like incident occurs.

Do this before it’s too late. People’s lives are on the line.