Tuesday, November 14, 2006

What's OSHA Doing About Refinery Safety? Not Enough

And while we're talking about Congressional oversight, a prime subject might be OSHA's weak efforts to ensure safety in our nation's petrochemical industry and how increased funding and inspection strategies might address the problem.

One finding of the US Chemical Safety Board's investigation into the March 2005 explosion at BP's Texas City refinery that killed 15 workers is the contribution of OSHA's lax enforcement.
The board’s chairwoman indicated that OSHA’s approach to workplace safety might be a bit shortsighted.

“It’s just like BP was focused on trips and falls and lost work-time incident rates,” said Carolyn Merritt, who chairs the Chemical Safety Board. “OSHA focused on that, and they’re not going to recognize, for instance, if (a company) cuts too far back in maintenance.”

Merritt said OSHA’s approach does not recognize the long-term potential for disaster due to poor maintenance or other lax process-safety measures.
TJ Aulds, writing in the Galveston Daily News notes that U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao recently released a report showing workplace injuries and illnesses to be at an all-time low, and credits "compliance assistance from the regulated companies, health and safety partnerships with labor groups and targeted, “aggressive” enforcement against bad actors" for the improvement. (More on that here.)

Although OSHA's inspections of petrochemical facilites has picked up recently, that increase is a result of the catastropic BP explosion and other small incidents. In fact, according to Aulds, it may be OSHA's reliance on self regulation that's causing the problems.
Department of Labor statistics obtained by The Daily News show that in OSHA’s Region 6, which includes Texas and four other states, the agency conducted 123 inspections of petrochemical facilities in three years, from Oct. 1, 2003, through Sept. 30, 2006.

The vast majority of those inspections would not be considered preventative. In fact, 91 were conducted as a result of an accident, referral or complaint.

The rest were either follow-ups to previous inspections or related to an accident, complaint or referral.

Forty-eight of all of the Region 6 inspections during that same three-year period were conducted by the Houston office, which has oversight of the petrochemical facilities in Galveston County.

From those inspections, OSHA issued only four non-injury or non-incident citations.

However, the rate of inspections has picked up dramatically in the Houston region since the blasts at BP.
The root cause of this problem is, of course, not lazy OSHA inspectors, according to Merritt:
“Listen, they are understaffed, under-funded and overworked,” she said. “It’s simply a big job, and OSHA doesn’t have the resources to do much more than it already is.”
And the cause of that problem lies in Washington D.C.

Nevertheless, OSHA has it's opinion and it's sticking the script, no matter how ridiculous it sounds:
“A strong, fair and effective enforcement program is a key part of OSHA’s overall approach to workplace safety and health,” said Elizabeth Todd, a spokeswoman for OSHA’s Region 6 office. “We have the resources we need to be effective. Our balanced approach to workplace safety and health is succeeding, and it’s validated by workplace injury, illness and fatality rates that are at their lowest levels, even as the work force continues to expand.”
Blah, blah, blah. Not everyone is fooled though.
That response drew a chuckle from Glenn Erwin, who heads the United Steelworkers workplace safety initiatives.

Erwin, a former Texas City resident and BP — then Amoco — employee, is also a member of the panel led by James Baker that is reviewing the safety culture of BP.

“There is never an incident that happens that doesn’t have precursors or warnings before it happens if industry and (regulators) would investigate,” said Erwin, a critic of programs that emphasize investigations only when injuries are involved.

“Companies should be required — and OSHA actively force them — to investigate every incident, no matter what the size and even if no one gets hurt or loses work time.”

Erwin said such measures wouldn’t likely take hold unless Congress gets involved.

Fewer people were killed in the Sago Mine accident “and it sent shock waves all the way through Congress,” said Erwin.

“They even had hearings on mine safety. BP didn’t have that shockwave. There were no hearings until you had that problem with Prudhoe Bay, (Alaska).

“Why was it there were not hearings on Capitol Hill as to why (the Texas City) incident was allowed to happen? It’s a double standard.”

Erwin credits the Chemical Safety Board with putting pressure on BP as well as on federal regulators.

“Had it not been for the CSB calling attention to this last year, Terry Shiavo would have been the only news, and we would have been a footnote,” he said. “Congress was so worried about that one woman’s life, but didn’t get at all bothered that 15 people were killed.”
Amen brother.