Refinery safety still falls short, regulators say

Safety at chemical plants and refineries has not improved despite scores of fatalities over the last decade and won’t until companies develop better systems for identifying red flags that point to potential disaster, panelists said at a hearing in Houston on Monday.

The first day of a two-day hearing by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board focused on safety shortcomings that contributed to deadly incidents like the 2005 explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery that killed 15 workers and injured scores. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill will be the main topic as the hearing continues Tuesday at the Hyatt Regency Hotel downtown.

Those incidents and others might have been prevented had companies paid closer attention to what the regulators called “leading indicators” – operational mishaps that may foreshadow serious safety hazards, regulators said.

Although panelists offered some praise for positive industry steps, they questioned the focus of safety recommendations crafted mainly by the American Petroleum Institute, an industry trade organization and lobbying group.

The institute’s standards for reporting, analyzing and acting on leading indicators probably would not have provided enough information to have prevented some recent disasters, said Bill Hoyle, a senior Chemical Safety Board investigator.

For example, he said, eight chemical releases that preceded the Texas City incident were of insufficient size or duration to trigger disclosure under the existing standards, Hoyle said.

“I think that’s a pretty important example,” Hoyle said. “Had those previous incidents been given serious attention – had they counted as process safety incidents and given the importance they should have got from that – we very well could have prevented the disaster that we had in 2005.”

21 companies involved

In Monday’s hearing and in previous reports, the safety board has stressed the need for process safety – systematic evaluation of the factors that lead to major accidents – in addition to personal safety that focuses on preventing injuries from such incidents as falls and dropped objects.

Kelly Keim, the chief process safety engineer for Exxon Mobil Chemical, who served as vice chairman of the group that drafted the API standards, said that widespread adoption of the process safety monitoring guidelines has made a difference.

A total of 21 companies, representing 91 percent of U.S. refining capacity, have reported 2011 figures on potential process safety indicators to API, Keim said.

But Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary of labor for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said that little substantive change has occurred to improve safety since the Texas City refinery explosion.

“We were disappointed at the low level of learning that seemed to be happening in the industry,” Barab said of refineries after a recent OSHA emphasis on the industry.

The chemical industry was no different, he said. “You’ll find the exact same hazards, the exact same violations, and pretty much the exact same lack of learning in that industry as well,” he said.

Few changes

In criticizing industry-supported standards they said don’t go far enough, Chemical Safety Board panelists referred to prescribed “obligations” in quotations marks because they are not legally binding.

Certain chemical releases or gas leaks would be exempt from reporting because they would be too small, although they could be “potential indicators of more serious events,” said Manuel Gomez, the safety board’s director of recommendations.

Although some investigators commended BP on safety monitoring improvements at its Texas City refinery, union representatives contended that little has changed at it or other plants.

They argued that criminal penalties and steep fines for mistakes were the only way to force substantial safety improvements and prevent further deaths and injuries.

Katherine Rodriguez, of the United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities, said the relatives of those who died in such incidents should play a role in any regulatory discussion.

“Twenty-two men and women died at the BP Texas City refinery in a five-year span,” she said. “One of them was my father. I want you all to realize that what we are talking about over the next few days. They are not just numbers. They are men and women and we miss them every day.”