By Tim Devaney - 04/17/14 12:40 PM EDT
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said Thursday that not enough has been done to protect workers in the wake of a deadly chemical plant explosion in West, Texas, last year.
"Arguably the only thing more tragic than the West, Texas, explosion that killed 15 and injured hundreds one year ago today is that so little has been done to prevent another such man-made disaster," the head of one of the nation's most powerful labor unions said in a statement.
Trumka's remarks come one year after a West Fertilizer Co. storage facility located 18 miles north of Waco, Texas, caught fire, causing the ammonium nitrate inside the building to explode. Many nearby homes and buildings were damaged or destroyed.
Critics complained that the facility had not been inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) since 1985, which may have led to lax efforts to comply with workplace safety procedures.
While the chemical explosion made national headlines, Trumka said it has spurred little action from lawmakers and regulators to protect workers from future disasters.
He called on Texas workers to better protect themselves by unionizing in an effort to bargain collectively with chemical companies to improve the safety conditions at these workplaces.
"The only way Texas, and the country as a whole, will become more responsive to the needs of society as a whole is if America's working people band together to demand better," Trumka said. "The single human innovation with the best track record of protecting working people is the union, and as we continue to invest in organizing workers in Texas, we will help make Texas work better for all Texans, not just the 1 percent who profit from the chaos of an unfettered market."
But workers are not the only people affected by dangerous conditions at chemical facilities, critics say.
On Wednesday, the Center for Effective Government reported that 4.6 million students attend school within a mile of one of these facilities.
The Center joined with hundreds of other public interest groups in a push for stronger chemical protections in the wake of the Texas chemical explosion, calling for more stringent disclosure standards, stronger reporting requirements and better emergency response plans. "But most importantly, the federal government must require that all facilities switch to inherently safer chemicals and processes whenever possible," the group said.
Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO might find support from at least one lawmaker. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the top senator on environmental issues, also called for stronger chemical protections on Wednesday.
"As we remember the devastating chemical explosion that happened one year ago in West, Texas, we must not forget that more needs to be done to prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future," said Boxer, chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
"We must do everything we can to make chemical facilities safe for communities across the nation," Boxer added.