US calls for tougher chemical process safety rules, higher fines

10 June 2010 20:48  [Source: ICIS news]

Plant explosionWASHINGTON (ICIS news)--The US refining and petrochemical industries have failed to incorporate lessons learned from fatal accidents, and tougher laws and stiffer penalties are needed to forestall further disasters, a top US safety official said on Thursday.

Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary at the US Labor Department and head of the department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), told a Senate panel that a recent safety inspection survey of major refining and petrochemical facilities produced results that were “deeply troubling”.

“Not only are we finding a significant lack of compliance during our inspections, but time and again, our inspectors are finding the same violations in multiple refineries, including those with common ownership, and sometimes even in different units in the same refinery,” Barab said.

“This is a clear indication that essential safety lessons are not being communicated within the industry,” he said.

“We are particularly disturbed to find even refineries that have already suffered serious incidents or received major OSHA citations making the same mistakes again,” Barab told the Senate Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety.

Barab cited the 20 April explosion and fire that killed 11 workers on the BP offshore oil rig and the 2005 explosion and fire at the BP Texas City, Texas, refinery that killed 15 workers as just two in a rash of fatal accidents in recent years.

“This failure to learn from earlier mishaps has exacted an alarming toll in human lives and suffering,” Barab said.

“In the last five years alone, OSHA has counted over 20 serious incidents, many resulting in deaths and injuries in refineries across the country,” he added.

“This cycle of workers being hurt or killed because their employers failed to implement well-known safety measures points out major deficiencies in chemical process safety management in the nation's refineries and, quite possibly, to systemic safety and health problems in the entire petrochemical industry,” Barab said.

He said that industry must do a better job of institutionalising systems for learning from mistakes, so it does not continue to repeat the same mistakes at the expense of workers’ lives.

“Reform in the management systems of companies that own, operate or provide services to petrochemical operations is needed and is needed now,” he said.

He said OSHA will step up its inspection and enforcement activities and will increase cooperation with other federal agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA), to target worker safety in the petrochemicals industry.

However, Barab said that OSHA and other federal agencies need greater regulatory authority and stiffer penalty levels to improve workplace safety in the sector.

“We need to pass the Protecting America’s Workers Act (PAWA), which would significantly increase OSHA’s ability to protect workers, and specifically workers in refineries and chemical plants,” he said.

He said the legislation, which was introduced in Congress in August last year and is pending before various committees, “would make meaningful and substantial changes to the Occupational Safety and Health Act that would increase OSHA’s civil and criminal penalties for safety and health violations”.

If that legislation were to become law, he said, it would “make us much more able to issue significant and meaningful penalties” before other workplace disasters occur.

He also said OSHA needed authority to require changes in what it determined were hazardous plant conditions even while contested enforcement actions were pending and before they were resolved in agency proceedings or the courts.

Testifying for refining and petrochemical operators, Charles Drevna argued that the accident rate in the process industries was lower than almost any other manufacturing industry.

Drevna, president of the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association (NPRA), told the panel that since the 2005 accident at BP’s Texas City refinery, the process industry had redoubled its efforts to improve workplace safety.

He said there had been improvements in facility sitting of permanent and temporary structures to ensure greater safety, a constant emphasis on an equal balance between personnel and process safety and the integration of plant safety management and operational reliability.

He agreed with an earlier statement by Barab that “OSHA officials need to find a better way to target problem refineries so that we aren’t wasting our time or your time inspecting refineries that don’t have major problems.

“NPRA wholeheartedly endorses this common-sense approach, which is long overdue,” Drevna said.

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