Investigators Examine Refinery Safety Culture

Investigators Examine Refinery Safety Culture

BP's safety issues raise questions about how certain manufacturers approach safety management.

Nearly five years after a blast at BP PLC's Texas City, Texas, refinery killed 15 people, the British oil giant must answer more questions from federal regulators who are stepping up efforts to enforce safety requirements at chemical processing facilities.

The U.S. Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposed that BP pay more than $3 million in fines for 42 alleged safety violations at a joint-venture refinery with Husky Energy in Oregon, Ohio, near Toledo. In addition to various hazards, including failure to provide adequate pressure relief for process units, OSHA's March 8 announcement referenced other citations that take into account safety management practices.

In the past, accident investigations were more focused on technical root causes of the incident, such as equipment failure, says attorney Mark Farley, a partner at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, where he leads the Environment, Land Use and Natural Resources office. But since the March 23, 2005 Texas City disaster, accident investigators have begun taking a closer look at the overall safety culture within an organization, Farley says.

"So now increasingly when investigating incidents the focus is not just on the specific equipment that may have given rise to the incident and why did it fail, but what was the overall culture at the organization, in terms of why were certain decisions made, why were actions taken or not taken," he says.

Mark Farley, partner, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP

Farley served as one of the lead attorneys supporting the BP U.S. Refineries Independent Safety Review Panel headed by former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker that investigated the corporate safety culture at BP. The panel concluded in a 374-page report published in 2007 that BP had emphasized personal safety but didn't focus enough on process safety. The report concluded that BP had not established "a positive, trusting and open environment with effective lines of communication between management and the workforce" at its Texas City, Toledo and Whiting refineries.

Several months after the report was published, OSHA announced it was stepping up oversight of oil refineries through a formal process known as a "national emphasis program." The added scrutiny means the government wants to know if there was an awareness of the hazard, were steps taken to address it, and whether the company followed through with its own safety procedures, Farley says.

"You could have the best safety program in the world, but if it exists only on paper and isn't actually being implemented effectively, then it's not doing anything to improve the overall performance or reduce the risk of a major accident," he says.

The renewed focus on safety procedures has been accompanied with larger fines, such as the OSHA record $87 million penalty BP received in October for the Texas City fire, and possible criminal charges, Farley says. In some cases, the FBI will join first responders to determine whether key pieces of information and evidence have been concealed, altered or destroyed.

The latest OSHA penalties that BP faces stem from a national emphasis review in September 2009 and a follow-up to a settlement BP reached with OSHA for a previous inspection. While OSHA determined that BP complied with the agreement, the agency found additional violations during the visit. BP employees were exposed to serious injuries or death from the potential release of flammable and explosive materials in the Toledo refinery because of process safety management failures, according to OSHA. The agency says 20 of the violations are serious.

OSHA is not scrutinizing BP more than other manufacturers because of the Texas City incident, says OSHA spokesman Brad Mitchell. Rather, the agency is continuing its renewed focus on overall refinery safety, he says.

Meanwhile, BP says it's in the process of reviewing the citations and that it's disappointed the violations were classified by OSHA as "willful," meaning the company had knowledge of the danger or was indifferent to it. The company pointed out that the Toledo refinery's recordable injuries rate was 25% lower than the industry average.

"In addition, the Toledo refinery has made steady, measurable improvement in matters of process safety," the company said.

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