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March 23, 2007

Investigative report cites BP, OSHA for TX tragedy that killed 15

Earlier this week, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) released a scathing report based on investigations into the BP disaster that killed 15 people and injured at least 180 others two years ago today. The report found fault with BP, citing organizational and safety deficiencies at all levels of the BP Corporation as well as "material deficiencies" in the safety of BP's five U.S. refineries in Texas, California, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington. Cost-cutting, downsizing, lack of adequate process controls, and fatigue by workers who had worked for 12-hour shifts for 29 consecutive days were all cited as contributing factors. Deficiencies were known by supervisors who bypassed Process Safety Management Standards, signing off on equipment checks that were never done. CSB also investigated the safety culture, finding a dysfunctional safety culture permeating the organization and a series of recurring safety problems that had been previously identified in internal audits, reports, and investigations leading up to the accident.

OSHA failure: "Rules already on the books would likely have prevented the tragedy in Texas City"
Although the CSB report offers detailed analysis, it is perhaps unsurprising at this stage to learn the of company's failures, many of which have been documented in various reports and news accounts in the two years since the tragedy. (In one blog that we posted at the time, a BP contractor who would have been at the scene of the disaster but for a matter of timing posted a comment that demonstrates that BP's total disregard for safety was well-known among contractors.)

Perhaps more disturbing is to learn of the abject failure by OSHA in enforcing existing standards and protecting worker safety. CSB cited lack of specialized expertise, a failure to spot warning signs at the refinery, and "insufficient" capability to enforce safety regulations at large petrochemical plants. Despite numerous fatalities, in the 20 years prior to the 2005 disaster, OSHA conducted only one planned PSM inspection at the Texas City Refinery, in 1998. The history of fines tell the story:

"Proposed OSHA fines during the twenty years preceding the March 2005 disaster - a period when ten fatalities occurred at the refinery - totaled $270,255; net fines collected after negotiations totaled $77,860. Following the March 2005 explosion, OSHA issued the largest penalty in its history to BP, over $21 million for more than 300 egregious and willful violations."

House panel demands OSHA reform
Following the report which indicates that the tragedy was preventable if proper oversight had been in place, U.S. House members have been calling for an overhaul of OSHA. Committee Chairman George Miller, said the panel will probe the "transformation of OSHA from a law enforcement organization into a so-called voluntary compliance organization." Others cited a lack of preventive measures:

"OSHA oversight is "constantly shooting behind the duck, that is, after the accident occurs, OSHA then comes in. There seems to be little pre-emptive investigation," Bowman said.

After Bowman's panel investigated, OSHA's own probe found more than 300 serious violations of its standards at the refinery, he said.

"That's not the way you run the railroad. If we can find 300 serious violations after the explosion, it would seem to me pre-emptively finding those violations would have prevented the explosion," he said."

We note with interest that many of these calls for reform are coming from the the Education and Labor Committee, and we think we detect the influence of our erstwhile fellow blogger Jordan Barab who turned in his keyboard to work at that Committee. Jordan's Confined Space archives on the BP disaster are perhaps one of the best online chronicles of events. Tragedies are often the catalyst for change and this may mark a turning point in OSHA's laissez fair attitude of recent years.

Prior related posts
BP's Damage Control
When the Independent Contractor Strategy Literally Blows Up
BP: Still Not Safe!

Posted by Julie Ferguson at 8:35 AM Link to, Comment (0), or E-mail this post
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