Monday, May 16, 2005

Refinery Deaths and Injuries Hidden By Flawed OSHA Recordkeeping Rules

Want to hear something "funny" about the BP Amoco explosion that killed 15 workers last March? BP's official death rate at the Texas City plant looked the same the day after the explosion as it did the day before the explosion. That's because companies are required by OSHA only to keep logs of the employees on their payroll; employees of contractors working at the site go on logs of the employer of the contractor, which often aren't even in the same industry as the main employer.

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.

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.
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.

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.

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.
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."

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.

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