Chron investigation finds that dangerous work is dangerous (and again omits context)

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The mighty Houston Chronicle, which not long ago spilled quite a bit of ink in an effort to protect 0.0005 percent of the population from insufficiently attentive backers, has found another class that needs protection.

Last weekend, the newspaper’s crack investigative team informed readers that dangerous work is, well, dangerous (even if we’re not quite sure HOW dangerous after the Chron investigation):

If rivers, rails and roads are the arteries of America’s surging petrochemicals industry, tank and barge cleaners are its kidneys, purifying containers so they can return to refineries and to energy and chemical companies across the nation to be refilled. But government health and safety experts don’t know much about these cleaners, how many there are or where they’re located, a Houston Chronicle investigation has found.

OSHA does not even know how many tank cleaning establishments it has inspected, in part because no standard industry code is used by the U.S. Department of Labor for tracking and inspecting them.


The Chronicle identified 373 tank and barge cleaning sites using trade publications, news reports, OSHA records and interviews. There could be many more. Owners of the sites range from individual family-owned facilities like Rainbow Transport Tank Cleaners in Carson, Calif., to Quala, the Florida-headquartered chain of 51 mostly truck wash facilities in 22 states. They stretch across the country, concentrated in Texas and Louisiana, heart of the nation’s petrochemical industry. The epicenter: Harris County.


The Chronicle also used OSHA records, along with news reports, to develop a workplace death toll for this largely hidden industry: 51 direct on-site deaths over the past 15 years, a toll that does not count people who died from work-related diseases that only become apparent days, weeks, months or years later. There could be more.

First off, let’s be perfectly clear that workplace fatalities are sad. We are genuinely sorry for the people featured in the story, who have lost loved ones who were employed in what seems to be a fairly dangerous line of work.

However as a journalist friend pointed out to us, this story, like the Chron investigation into the epidemic of people who pay insufficient attention when backing up in their vehicles, omitted what might have been useful context (which probably made some attorneys in town happy — who knows, perhaps one even pointed the crack investigative journalists towards this story).

So, here’s some interesting context (also pointed out by our friend): In 2012, there were more workplace fatalities in the financial activities sector (85 deaths, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) than there were fatalities in the tank-cleaning industry in the entire 15-year period investigated by the Chronicle (51 deaths).

Now, that’s an eye-opening comparison! But even that’s just a start. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also tracks fatal injury rate (that is, how many fatalities take place per 100,000 workers). To convey a better sense of the degree of danger involved in the obviously dangerous work of cleaning tanks that transport/store hazardous material, the Chronicle might have made some effort to compare it to other dangerous industries.

Instead of engaging in more powerful explanatory journalism, the Chronicle stopped with the tragedy of it all, and the strong implication that something must be done (when in reality, that’s not entirely clear).

Still, the fact that some degree of investigative (as opposed to secretarial) journalism took place probably should be considered a positive.

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Kevin Whited is co-founder and publisher of blogHOUSTON. Follow him on twitter: @PubliusTX