Refiners still weak on process safety, charges USW

RP news wires
Tags: workplace safety

The United Steelworkers union (USW) is disputing the oil industry's claim that oil refineries are doing much to address safety issues.

"If this is such a safe industry, why did five workers die at Tesoro in Anacortes April 2?" asked USW vice president Gary Beevers, who heads the union's oil sector. "Why do we see accidents, releases and near misses almost daily? Why are so many refineries failing OSHA's National Emphasis Program (NEP) inspections? Why not open the Voluntary Protection Program sites to NEP inspections?"

Voluntary Protection Program participants develop and implement systems to identify, evaluate, prevent and control occupational hazards to prevent employee injuries and illnesses. OSHA removes participants from programmed inspection lists.

In the last 15 years, the petroleum refining industry has had more fatal or catastrophic incidents because of the release of highly hazardous chemicals than in any other industry sector covered by the Process Safety Management (PSM) standard. After the March 2005 BP Texas City explosion and fire killed 15 workers and injured 180 more, OSHA initiated the National Emphasis Program (NEP) in 2007.

During the first year of the NEP, OSHA issued 348 PSM citations to 14 refineries in six of the agency's 10 regions. The PSM standard requires employers to develop and incorporate comprehensive, site-specific safety management systems to reduce the risks of fatal or catastrophic incidents. Inspectors saw many of the same problems repeatedly, such as the lack of identification and prompt correction of hazardous deficiencies in critical process equipment.

"Near-misses and deadly incidents are happening with an alarming frequency," Beevers said. "Even the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) is noticing that they are having to deal with repeat health and safety problems."

The CSB is currently investigating 18 major accidents, at least seven of which occurred in oil refineries. There are approximately 150 oil refineries in the United States compared to tens of thousands of chemical plants. This disproportionate number of major accidents in oil refineries demonstrates the severe safety and health issues in this industry. CSB chairman John Bresland recently stated, "If the aviation industry had the same number and types of incidents as the refining industry, I don't think people would be flying too much."

The difference in the approach to safety between the industry and the union showed up when the USW served on an American Petroleum Institute committee to determine process safety performance indicators. The company majority on the committee voted to classify incidents such as releases from atmospheric vents and flares as properly functioning safety systems. The union minority argued repeatedly that these events were key indicators of safety system failures that could be indicative of the potential for a major event like an explosion. Use of an atmospheric vent contributed to the BP disaster at Texas City.

The company majority also ensured that companies would control and limit information shared with the public about incidents and near-misses at their sites. They wanted only major incidents to be reported by company or industry, not by site. They rejected union ideas, like a free sharing of information on the web that would identify data by company and site. This approach would make data accessible by all stakeholders interested in company or site performance, like the community surrounding these refineries.

"The oil refiners have a duty to provide a safe workplace, and it's about time they stop playing games with personal injury statistics, indicators of process safety and reporting requirements," Beevers said. "The cost of their game-playing is high. It's time they wake up and work seriously with us to turn this industry around in terms of process safety."

The USW is the largest industrial union in North America and has 850,000 members in the U.S., Canada, and the Caribbean. It represents workers employed in metals, rubber, chemicals, paper, oil refining, atomic energy and the service sector. 

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