Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Unsettling Questions at BP Texas City -- Wall St. Journal

That radical left-wing newsrag, the Wall St. Journal, had a front page article today about the BP Texas City explosion that killed 15 workers and injured 170, indicating that it may have been cutbacks in staffing and maintenance that caused the explosion. BP, as you know, blamed the explosion on “surprising and deeply disturbing” mistakes made by plant workers who did not follow proper procedures, instead of poor maintenance or malfunctioning pumps, indicators and alarms that caused the problem.

According to the Journal, "now the search for the cause is raising some unsettling questions"
BP has denied any connection between cost-cutting and plant fatalities. It contends that overall safety at its American refineries has improved since it acquired them.

"I think the culture of safety, in terms of policies and procedures, was there," said Ross Pillari, president of BP Products North America. "But the implementation of these policies and procedures was clearly not there, because if it was, the accidents wouldn't have happened."
Now what the hell does that mean? The "culture of safety" was there, but "implementation of these policies and procedures was clearly not there?" I got news for you buddy. If people aren't implementing the policies and procedures, there's no "culture of safety."

Despite Pilari's assertion, it appears that BP was the model of bad workplace culture. Workplace "culture," also known as organizational factors does not just consist of managers telling workers to be safe and follow the rules. According to James Reason's book Managing the Risks of Organizational Accidents (quoted in by Fred Manuele's "Serious Injury Prevention" Occupational Health & Safety, June 2005):
Latent conditions, such as poor design, gaps in supervision, undetected manufacturing defects or maintenance failures, unworkable procedures, clumsy automation, shortfalls in training, less than adequate tools and equipment, may be present for many years before they combine with local circumstances and active failures to penetrate the system's layers of defenses They arise from strategic and other top-level decisions made by governments, regulators, manufacturers, designers and organizational managers. The impact of these decisions spreads throughout the organization, shaping a distinctive corporate culture and creating error-producing factors within the individual workplaces
If BP has a culture of safety, it sure isn't preventing serious accidents, as the Journal summarizes:
BP has five refineries in the U.S. Two others that, like Texas City, were acquired during a buying spree started in the late-1990s have also had worker deaths recently.

On New Year's Day 2004, a technician at a plant in Whiting, Ind., fell and cracked his skull after a corroded handrail gave way. BP investigators concluded in an internal report, separate from the one issued in May, that there hadn't been a procedure to inspect and repair the facility's handrails, which date to the 1940s. BP said that it has since inspected all handrails at its refineries. Indiana regulators fined BP $1,625 over the incident.

In May, a contractor was found dead at BP's refinery in Cherry Point, Wash. An initial company investigation has found no evidence that the death was related to an accident, a person familiar with the inquiry said. The death is under investigation by the county coroner and state safety regulators.

Even excluding the Cherry Point death and the 15 fatalities in March, BP's four other deaths since January 2002 are more than the number recorded by its main rivals in the U.S., according to federal data and information provided by the companies. BP is America's third-largest refiner. No. 1 ConocoPhillips and No. 2 Exxon Mobil Corp. each had one death during that period.
The Journal also noted that staff reductions may have been to blame for the safety problems:
BP acquired the Texas City refinery from Amoco. In the 1990s, Amoco had reduced the plant's unionized work force by 19%, to 1,300 people, according to Sonny Sanders, a former Texas City employee and longtime labor-union official. Under Amoco, major maintenance overhauls, called "turnarounds," became less frequent, said Mr. Sanders, now a United Steelworkers representative. BP said it wasn't in a position to comment on Amoco's actions. The steelworkers union, which represents BP employees, has challenged the company's findings on the blast and is conducting its own probe.

As it absorbed its American acquisitions in 1999 and 2000, BP cut its work force of U.S. refinery employees and contractors by 10%, largely by means of buyouts in Texas City and Whiting, Ind. At Texas City, the staff of unionized maintenance craftsmen and operators fell by 213, or about 18%, the company said in written answers to questions for this article. The reductions were partially offset by greater use of outside contractors, BP added.
And then there's the maintenance cutbacks:
"The approach to reducing costs was well thought out and systematic," BP's Mr. Pillari said. It "does not appear, in so far as we have seen, to have had anything to do with the fatalities" at Texas City or anywhere else, he adds. The company said in written answers that it has steadily increased overall spending on maintenance in the U.S. At Texas City in 2003-2004, BP said that it spent 40% more per barrel of oil it refined than was spent in 1997-1998 under Amoco. BP declined to disclose dollar figures.

Current and former Texas City employees and contractors paint a different picture. Under BP, the refinery deferred some routine maintenance inspections because of staff shortages, according to three former employees and one current worker. In addition, certain safety procedures have been ignored at the plant, according to seven people who have worked there. Contractors and BP employees sometimes work high above ground without proper safety gear, according to four of these people. BP said that it requires strict compliance with its policies for working at an elevation.

But OSHA's regional director, Mr. Miles, said that managers at other Texas refineries he has inspected, including one nearby owned by Valero Energy Corp., are more actively involved in safety issues. "You don't see that down the street" at BP, he said.

Mr. Crow, the veteran maintenance contractor who was injured in March at Texas City, said disrepair at the plant was worse than what he has seen at comparable refineries. He said he was particularly troubled by corroding metal springs that hold refinery pipes in place. "Everything out there is rusty," he said.

Glenn Alexander, a 45-year-old electrical contractor who suffered shoulder and back injuries in the March blast, said corrosion plagued much of the refinery. Last year, he said, a metal structure supporting power and communications lines high above ground collapsed because of corrosion. No one was injured. Another section of the same sort of structure "was wobbly and could have fallen any minute," he said. Mr. Alexander was a plaintiff in the negligence suit against BP but agreed to a confidential settlement after he was interviewed.