InterviewLabour group says proposed US chem standards weak

07 August 2009 23:36  [Source: ICIS news]

2005 BP explosion in Texas City, TexasBy: Al Greenwood

HOUSTON (ICIS news)--Two committees charged with drafting US chemical and refinery safety standards will likely end up with tepid recommendations, doing little to improve safety or prevent accidents, an officer with the United Steelworkers (USW) union said on Friday.

The USW left the committees, saying it was outnumbered by industry representatives, who rejected their suggestions.

"It doesn't matter whether or not the USW was participating, because they were not going to agree with us anyway," said Gary Beevers, an international vice president for the USW, which represents more than 30,000 US oil workers.

The committees will continue drafting the standards without the USW, with plans to issue them by the end of the year.

"They are going to come up with something that is real mild, something that will do absolutely nothing for the health and safety of the community," Beevers said.

Charles Drevna, president of the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association (NPRA) said in a letter that he regretted the USW's departure. The committees were being conducted under the procedures established by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

"We are confident that the results of these efforts will have a significant and positive impact on industry," Drevna said. "The protection of our workers, our contractors and our neighbourhoods is paramount."

The intention of the developing the standards was to prevent accidents like the 2005 BP refinery explosion in Texas City, Texas.

In its report on the accident, the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) recommended that the USW and the American Petroleum Institute (API) work together to create two new standards addressing process-safety indicators and worker fatigue - two of the main factors that led up to the explosion. A committee was assigned to draft each standard.

"The CSB’s investigation of the tragic explosion at BP Texas City established that the lack of process safety metrics as well as operator fatigue were important causal factors," according to a statement by John Bresland, CSB chairman. "Continued progress needs to be made on these issues before new chemical accidents occur at refineries and chemical plants, harming workers and the public.” 

Bresland added: “The CSB continues to believe that the safety of the oil and chemical sectors will be significantly improved by actions to control operator fatigue and by actions to measure and report on process safety performance."

Beevers said the two committees did make progress on some topics, but they hit a standstill on the two main issues for the union: guidelines for reporting flares and other mishaps and restrictions on overtime, Beevers said.

The union wanted an industry-wide standard that would restrict the practice of pulling employees from their existing positions to perform special tasks, Beevers said.

Once that employee is pulled, then his peers have to work extra hours to cover the vacancy, he said. The practice increased overtime hours, which led to fatigue.

Other committee members did not support a specific limit, citing concerns about imposing a one-size-fits-all approach throughout the industry, according to a statement by the API. Instead, targets should be set on a site-by-site level, with annual progress reviews.

The union disagreed. "My position on that is it's not a standard," Beevers said.

The other issue concerned reporting.

The union wanted industry to issue public reports on mishaps such as excessive flarings and unit upsets, Beevers said. Moreover, the union wanted the names of companies included in the reports.

From the union's standpoint, such mishaps can be symptoms of problems that could lead up to a major accident, Beevers said.

However, the industry wanted blind reporting, as it would not reveal the companies' names, Beevers said. As such, he said, communities would not know where the flares were coming from.

Out of 43 participating representatives on the two committees, at least 30 came from chemical producers, refiners and their trade associations. Labour had five representatives.

The USW had asked about the disparity in representatives, Beevers said. However, the USW was not in a position to appoint representatives, since it was simply a member of the committees.

The American Petroleum Institute, however, said the USW was asked repeatedly to provide additional representatives to the committees. Moreover, the union did not follow up on a suggestion to recommend environmental groups to participate.

To discuss issues facing the chemical industry go to ICIS connect

By: Al Greenwood
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