The problem was identified almost 15 years ago in a so-called "John Gray Report," or "Managing Worker Safety and Health: The Case of Contract Labor in the U.S. Petrochemical Industry." The John Gray report was commissioned by OSHA in the aftermath of the 1989 Phillips 66 explosion that killed 23 workers, injured 130 and did $750 million in damage. The John Gray Report contained a variety of recommendations regarding the use of contractors in the petrochemical industry, among which was that "OSHA should require plants to collect and record site specific injury and illness data for all workers on site (except for separate an distinct, engaged in new construction)." OSHA never acted on this recommendation.
The Houston Chronicle has picked up on this bit of not-so-ancient history and applied it to the current investigation of the Texas City BP Amoco explosion:
Long considered one of the nation's most dangerous industries, oil refining suddenly seemed one of the safest when the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported no refinery deaths in 2002 or 2003.Industries such as petroleum refining justify their heavy use of contractors by arguing that for highly specialized work such a "turnarounds," it makes more sense to bring in specialists as needed, rather than employing them when they aren't needed or using less skilled regular employees.
But at least nine people were asphyxiated, burned or fell to their deaths at our nation's refineries during those years, according to a Houston Chronicle review of media accounts, industry statistics and fatal accident reports to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Twenty more have died since then — 15 in the March 23 BP Texas City accident alone.
How do the refinery dead disappear?
The answer is fairly simple.
Increasingly, the accuracy of government safety statistics is undermined by the changing work force. These days, up to half of refinery workers are contractors, who generally get some of the most dangerous jobs.
Since these folks do not work directly for petroleum companies — even though some toil for years at the same refinery — their deaths get diverted to several catch-all construction or maintenance categories, such as "1799, Special Trade Contractors, Not Elsewhere Classified."
"They'll show up in the statistics but not as refinery workers," explained retired Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) economist Guy Toscano. "The more dangerous an occupation, the less likely a company would want to hire those people directly — they want to boost their own safety rates and decrease their liability."
Nor are such deaths generally counted in the refineries' individual injury and accident logs, which OSHA uses to determine its "hit lists" of dangerous facilities targeted for more frequent inspections. The way the U.S. safety statistics are kept, a work site will not generally get a black mark if contractors from other companies are killed or injured there — only if a permanent employee dies or gets hurt.
For former OSHA Administrator Patrick Tyson, that's a real hole in the workplace safety net. Without contractor fatality and injury data, OSHA inspectors may not pick up a problem refinery, said Tyson, now a safety consultant with the Altanta firm of Constangy Brooks & Smith.
"If the site gets picked up, it's going to be almost a fluke," Tyson said.
John Miles, the OSHA administrator for the five-state region that includes Texas, agreed in an interview that reporting that emphasizes the employer over the site of an accident can affect OSHA's ability to both find and target dangerous businesses in some cases. But he said right now no one is pushing for reforms in the reporting system.
While there may be some truth to the specialization justification, the fact is that the petroleum industry, along with other hazardous industries such as steel, are increasingly contracting out their more dangerous jobs to make the main company look safer.
In refineries, contractors are often assigned to do the most dangerous jobs, including maintenance "turnaround" — cleaning and repairing and restarting equipment — as well as hot work, like welding. Some are self-employed who are exempt from many OSHA rules.Ultimately, if enough deaths are factored out because they're contractors, the entire industry may drop off the official federal count of fatalities by industry. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, in its annual Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, does not list any industry with less than three fatalities "to protect the privacy of the families of those who died and to honor confidentiality agreements made with states that provide the data."
If the usual guidelines are followed, none of the 15 people who lost their lives in the refinery fire in March in Texas City — one of the worst refinery accidents in decades — would be counted as refinery deaths since none worked directly for BP, the refinery owner.
Which brings us back to the 1989 John Gray report. The bottom line is that unless and until injury, illness and fatality data is kept and publicized on a site (rather than company) basis, it will be difficult, if not impossible for federal authorities or employers to gain a realistic sense of hazards in any given industry.
- BP Kills More Than Any Other Refining Firm, May 15, 2005
- "I Should Have Been Killed" -- Survivors of Texas City BP Blast, April 19, 2005
- BP Amoco Texas City Update: Plant Owners Aware of Venting and Trailer Location Hazards, April 10, 2005
- Workplace Safety Enforcement: A Tale of Two Countries, April 5, 2005
- Transparency? Or PR Savvy?, March 26, 2005
- BP In California: "callous and intentional noncompliance purely for economic reasons", March 24, 2005
- BP, site of fatal explosion, is Nation's Leader in Accidents, March 24, 2005
- At Least 14 Dead, Hundreds Injured In Huge Refinery Explosion, March 23, 2005