But it's a penalty that requires context. As I noted when the investigation began, OSHA is a limp-wristed regulator. Its role is that of monitor, not enforcer. It's an agency designed to prevent accidents from happening, not to mete out punishment when they do.The Chemical Safety Board's recommendation that BP set up an indpependent panel to study the safety culture at its US operations holds more promise. BP has accepted the Board's recommendations and is making needed repairs and upgrades while it's shut down after hurricane Rita.
Even in this area, though, the agency comes up short. As Regional Administrator John Miles told the Chronicle's Lise Olsen last month, OSHA has only one six-member team to handle the specialized safety inspections for refineries nationwide. I'm not trying to let OSHA off the hook. Many of the safety problems at BP had existed for years before the explosion, and the agency was unable or unwilling to make BP correct them.
OSHA's actions, though, have to be viewed through the watered-down world in which it operates. For BP, $21 million is a pittance. For OSHA, it's largest fine ever levied, almost twice as large as the previous record penalty.
Typically, OSHA finds only one or two violations of workplace safety nationwide each year that it rates as "egregious." At the BP refinery, it found 296.
OSHA, stating what has become painfully obvious, declared that BP's management had a lax attitude toward safety. The agency says it hasn't ruled out referring the case to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecutions.
But repairing what's wrong at BP will take more than that. It's the culture that needs changing, the lax attitude toward safety that needs improvement.
That's not a change that can be regulated or fined or inspected into compliance. That's a change that comes through commitment.
Sure, BP agreed to hire an outside safety auditor, and it will have the independent safety board looking over its shoulder, but culture can't be changed by edict or oversight. It changes because everyone, from executives to workers on the ground, understands the purpose of the policies.
It's not just about checklists and requirements; it's about intent.
That's far harder than jumping through hoops for OSHA. That's what BP owes to the 15 who died, to the 170 who were injured, and to the hundreds of workers who every day walk through the company's gates in Texas City.
The OSHA report underscores the magnitude of the problem. Now it's up to BP to fix it