WASHINGTON — After the lethal explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery that killed 15 workers in 2005, the oil industry boosted safety at industrial operations on land but never made the same improvements offshore, according to federal investigators meeting in Houston this week.
The Chemical Safety Board is set to conclude that the offshore drilling sector’s focus on monitoring individual worker injuries — while ignoring bigger warning signs of “process safety” problems that could lead to emergencies — set the stage for the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
“BP, Transocean, industry associations and the regulator did not effectively learn critical lessons of Texas City and other incidents,” the CSB says in documents obtained by the Houston Chronicle. “A key lesson not implemented was that preventing major accidents requires a specific focus on process safety management over and above conventional personal safety.”
The independent federal agency is reviewing the industry’s long-term response to the Texas City refinery explosion in a hearing Monday. On Tuesday, the board is set to release preliminary findings of its investigation into the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster that killed 11 workers and launched the nation’s worst oil spill.
The CSB, which has probed more than 50 industrial accidents, does not issue citations. It makes safety recommendations to plants, labor groups and regulators.
The agency recommended major changes after investigating the explosion at BP’s Texas City plant, and it now says refiners have made “significant progress” creating systems for tracking and identifying near-misses and other incidents that could be harbingers of bigger accidents — not just recording data on personal injuries such as slips and falls. For instance, improvements onshore include systems for tracking spills, gas leaks, maintenance of safety equipment and times when devices are pushed beyond safe operating limits.
But the industry has not adopted similar programs for using key performance indicators to drive safety improvements for offshore drilling. As an example, the CSB is expected to cite Transocean’s decision to award executives millions of dollars in bonuses for what the company deemed an “exemplary statistical safety record” in 2010 despite the deaths aboard its Deepwater Horizon rig, which was under contract to BP.
The bonuses, which were donated to victims’ families after a public outcry, stemmed from a Transocean safety tracking system that focused heavily on potential personal injuries.
“That was the most glaring proof that whatever lessons we were talking about that should be happening after Texas City were not being paid attention to,” CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said.
Transocean declined to comment but previously apologized for using “insensitive” wording to describe its safety record in 2010.
Safety expert Andrew Hopkins, a sociology professor at the Australian National University, said companies should monitor and report how long it takes offshore rig crews to respond to kicks, when oil, natural gas or other fluids enter wells.
“Blowout prevention relies on drillers recognizing kicks as soon as possible after they have occurred and taking corrective action, such as closing the well,” he said.
Roughly a month before it exploded, BP’s Macondo well had a kick that went unnoticed for 33 minutes. On the night it blew out in 2010, it took drillers about 40 minutes to recognize a kick had occurred — too late to stop explosive gas from spilling into the rig. Regulators in Australia and Norway require well kicks to be publicly reported. There is no similar mandate in the U.S.
Other potential indicators of safety problems offshore are well cementing failures and triggering of gas alarms.
Industry representatives rejected the CSB’s characterization, which they said ignores safety improvements offshore, especially since the Deepwater Horizon. Federal regulators now require companies drilling in U.S. waters to adopt “safety and environmental management systems” for assessing and mitigating risks, and some operators were using such programs before they were mandated last November.
A new industry-created Center for Offshore Safety also is working to identify leading and lagging indicators of problems, with plans to collect the data and search for widespread problems. Charlie Williams, the center’s director, slated to testify at Tuesday’s hearing, said the data will help identify areas where industry needs to improve. Although individual companies are tracking safety performance indicators offshore, they have not been tracked industrywide, Williams acknowledged.
Companies need to be vigilant about both personal and process safety, he said. For instance, if a company sees many slips on stairs, the answer isn’t just installing anti-slip treads, but also assessing why the accidents happened in the first place.
After the Texas City refinery blast, the American Petroleum Institute created a “recommended practice” for using indicators to monitor process safety, identify risks and prevent catastrophes in petrochemical plants.
The CSB’s Moure-Eraso said the move shows progress but falls below what is needed, because only relatively rare incidents must be publicly reported under the standard. Those incidents happen so infrequently they cannot be used to monitor trends and assess safety improvements, while potentially more useful data is shielded from public view, Moure-Eraso said.
“If you have very few cases, there aren’t enough numbers to demonstrate these trends (and) you cannot compare one place to another,” Moure-Eraso said.
Chemical Safety Board’s public hearing on safety performance indicators
9 am to 5 pm, Monday and Tuesday
Hyatt Regency Houston, Imperial Ballroom
1200 Louisiana Street, Houston, Texas