An accident that killed Nick Revetta, a U.S. Steel worker outside of Pittsburgh has gone unpunished, with not even the slightest citation being issued for an explosion that was the result of a leak gas pipe. It is an accident, and a death, that didn't need to happen, it seems. More than 50,000 Americans die every year because of workplace accidents or workplace-related illnesses. How many of them, like the death of Nicholas Revetta, could've been avoided and how many of them are never punished?
Early on the morning of Sept. 3, 2009, Nicholas Adrian Revetta left the Pittsburgh suburb of Pleasant Hills and drove 15 minutes to a job at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Plant, a soot-blackened industrial complex on the Monongahela River. He never returned home.
Stocky and stoic, Revetta was working that Thursday as a laborer for a U.S. Steel contractor at the same plant that employed his brother, for the same company that had employed his late father. Shortly before 11:30 a.m., gas leaking from a line in the plant’s Chemicals and Energy Division found an ignition source and exploded, propelling Revetta backward into a steel column and inflicting a fatal blow to his head. Thirty-two years old, he left behind a wife and two young children.
Nick Revetta’s death did not make national headlines. No hearings were held into the accident that killed him. No one was fired or sent to jail.
The details of the investigation are hard to believe:
“These deaths take place behind closed doors,” says Michael Silverstein, recently retired head of Washington State’s workplace safety agency. “They occur one or two at a time, on private property. There’s an invisibility element.”
Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, American workers are entitled to “safe and healthful” conditions. Nick Revetta’s death and the events that followed lay bare the law’s limitations, showing how safety can yield to speed, how even fatal accidents can have few consequences for employers, and how federal investigations can be cut short by what some call a de facto quota system.
In the Revetta case, the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration — OSHA — failed to issue even a minor citation to U.S. Steel, the world’s 12th-largest steelmaker and an economic leviathan in Western Pennsylvania. The company paid no fine, although current and former workers say that U.S. Steel’s contractors — including Revetta’s employer, Power Piping Co. — faced intense pressure to finish their work.
OSHA did look into Revetta’s death, as required by law. Michael Laughlin, a safety inspector from the agency’s Pittsburgh office, spent more than two months on the case, working tirelessly to find the cause of the explosion. Yet emails obtained by the Center for Public Integrity show that Laughlin’s requests for help went unanswered, and he was pulled off the investigation by a supervisor striving to meet inspection goals.
“My problem is at what point do we give up quality for quantity,” Laughlin wrote in an appeal to a higher-ranking OSHA official in Philadelphia in November 2009. “I need some guidance because I'm torn and my spirit is broken because of the need to complete this case to the best of my ability."
The official advised Laughlin to “relax” and use the weekend to “go out and hit some [golf] balls!”
In the end, OSHA penalized only an insulation contractor that had been working in the area of the explosion. The contractor paid $10,763 in fines unrelated to the blast and was not implicated in Revetta’s death.
"The OSHA investigation that was done missed the point," says John Gismondi, a lawyer who represents Nick Revetta's wife, Maureen, in a lawsuit against U.S. Steel. "It wasn't the right type of investigation. They spent all their time on penny-ante stuff. How do you have a situation where all the pipes are owned or maintained by U.S. Steel, you have an explosion, a guy is killed and you have no violation? How is that possible?"
"I'm upset with U.S. Steel," says Maureen Revetta, 34, "but I think I'm angrier with OSHA. They're the government agency that's supposed to keep people safe … It just seemed like they purposely didn't want to fine U.S. Steel."
Ten months after her husband's death, a second explosion rocked the Clairton Plant, sending 17 workers to the hospital. OSHA blamed the accident on a contractor shortcut approved by U.S. Steel, an allegation the company is contesting.
In a written statement to the Center for Public Integrity, OSHA said it conducted a "thorough investigation" of Nick Revetta's death. "It was determined [that] there was insufficient factual evidence that could support the issuance of citations specifically related to the root cause of the incident."
David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, would not talk about the Revetta case; nor would Robert Szymanski, head of OSHA's Pittsburgh Area Office. Edward Selker, the now-retired OSHA deputy regional administrator who urged inspector Laughlin to go hit golf balls, did not return calls to his home. A U.S. Steel spokeswoman declined to comment. In a court filing, the company denied any negligence in the case.
The silence has shaken Revetta's former co-workers. "It just hasn't gone away," says John Straub, a U.S. Steel employee who has worked in Clairton since 1979. "Nobody has really explained to us exactly what happened. They tell us they don't know what the ignition source was. I was working in that same area a couple of weeks before the explosion. I look back and say, 'That could have been me.' "
Obviously, OSHA's effectiveness declined under George W. Bush, but is it moving back in the right direction? Are things getting better? Don't ask Maureen Revetta that question.