Lessons Not Learned: Oil Industry Fails to Embrace Adequate Safety Measures

Jun 10, 2010, 15:01 ET from United Steelworkers (USW)

USW Before US Senate: OSHA's Ability to Regulate Needs Improvement

WASHINGTON, June 10 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Kim Nibarger, health and safety specialist for the United Steelworkers (USW), testified today before a Senate subcommittee that the oil industry is failing its workers and the public by failing to embrace process safety. He also emphasized that OSHA's ability to regulate must be improved.

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Nibarger testified before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety in a hearing entitled "Production over Protections: A Review of Process Safety Management in the Oil and Gas Industry."

His testimony highlighted the lessons not learned in the oil industry. The USW has investigated accidents over the years and has seen how the contributing causes seem to repeat themselves. Refiners are not taking the information available and applying it to their organizations.

"Too often we hear 'we do not have that problem here,' but no one bothers to investigate whether they actually do or not," Nibarger said.

Examples of Reoccurring Actions

One of the findings of the BP Texas City explosion/fire in March 2005 that killed 15 workers and injured 170 others was there were unnecessary people in the area during the start-up of a unit. Despite this lesson, refiners continue to allow people to be in inappropriate areas at the time of a start-up. Nibarger testified that in the April 2 Tesoro explosion/fire in Anacortes, Wash., the seven fatalities were the result of too many people being where they didn't need to be.

Another lesson that should have been learned from the BP Texas City catastrophe was to replace the use of atmospheric vents on process units. Refiners continue to use these vents and as a result releases and fires continue to happen. Operating procedures also are not being reviewed and updated to ensure the correct steps are being taken.

Tougher Standards Needed

The oil industry is basically self-regulated. The American Petroleum Institute (API), the trade association representing the oil and natural gas industry, writes recommended safety practices for the industry to voluntarily adopt.

"I think a prudent individual understands that when you write the rules to govern yourself, you typically are pretty lenient," Nibarger said.

An example of an API Recommended Practice is the replacement of trailers with tents in predicted blast zones. The Chemical Safety Board had recommended after the 2005 BP explosion/fire that trailers and people un-needed for a start-up should be moved away from a blast zone.

Nibarger testified that the process safety management standard must be updated and made stronger. He said OSHA needs to develop a new measurement of process safety performance and that the traditional OSHA 300 injury log—which tracks personal injuries like slips, trips and falls—is not an indicator of process safety.

Process safety refers to the replacement and maintenance of equipment; having systems in place to insure that pipes and machinery are in top condition; adequate training for employees; staffing so that workers don't do too much overtime that they get fatigued and make mistakes; maintaining adequate records and information on possible hazards to workers; and, making sure that changes to a process are recorded and shared with workers.

Rigorous Regulation Needed

"We hear many complaints about OSHA not doing enough but one of the biggest problems is the limit to what OSHA can currently do and the limited response required of a company to OSHA citations," Nibarger testified.

Currently, companies are not required to fix hazardous situations that OSHA has cited them for while they are contesting the citations and penalties. Imagine if the Federal Aviation Association did not have the power to force an airliner to bench planes while citations and penalties were being contested.

In his written testimony, Nibarger also discussed how the oil industry is unwilling to embrace a safer alternative for the use of hydrogen fluoride in the alkylation process, its "drive to the bottom," the reluctance to hire more staff to reduce overtime and fatigue, and the increased time between unit or plant turnarounds (a total or partial shutdown to do maintenance and repair work and inspect, test and replace process materials and equipment).

"Only when the consequences of allowing workers to be injured or killed on the job are severe enough will companies take serious action to change their safety culture," Nibarger concluded.

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.

A copy of Nibarger's written testimony is at: www.usw.org

Contact: Lynne Baker (USW); 615-831-6782; 615-828-6169; lbaker@usw.org

SOURCE United Steelworkers (USW)