AMARILLO, Texas (AP) — The U.S. Bureau of Land Management violated safe handling policies at a helium plant in the Texas Panhandle, federal work-safety investigators reported Thursday.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration said in a statement that it is the first time it has invoked its egregious violation policy in citing unsafe conditions at a federal facility.
OSHA said it issued 21 notices of unsafe working conditions to the bureau related to the handling of chemical materials at the Cliffside Helium Enrichment Unit in Amarillo.
The violations would carry a penalty of more than $1 million in the private sector, but monetary penalties are not assessed to federal agencies for failing to comply with OSHA standards, the agency said.
The Amarillo plant refines and sells helium products to private entities. OSHA said it found five egregious willful violations for failure to perform inspections and tests on process equipment, as well as six willful safety violations that included failing to train workers to understand the purpose and function of the energy control program.
OSHA also cited serious violations for process safety management failures and other-than-serious safety violations involving notification and records violations.
The Bureau of Land Management is part of the U.S. Department of Interior. The department’s Office of the Inspector General initiated a June 8, 2021, inspection after the OIG received worker complaints of serious health and safety violations.
“OSHA found the Bureau of Land Management’s Cliffside Helium Enrichment Unit willfully and repeatedly failed to take required safety measures to ensure the facility’s compliance with federal safety and health procedures and protect employees from chemical production hazards,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Douglas Parker.
Bureau spokesman Richard Packer said the agency has worked to address OSHA's concerns.
“Last summer, production at the plant was shut down for over three months to address safety-related operational protocols and bolster training. An interdisciplinary team continues to monitor operations to ensure our workers and the environment are protected. We will share that work with OSHA and are reviewing the findings in today’s report to determine what if any additional steps need to be taken,” Packer said in a statement.
The Associated Press