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USW Refinery Survey Shows Causes of Refinery Explosions Prevalent Throughout Industry

November 2007, News From USW: A survey done by the United Steelworkers (USW) union reveals that the conditions that led to the March 2005 explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery are widespread throughout the refining sector and that the industry is failing to learn from such explosions and near-misses.

Titled “Beyond Texas City: The State of Process Safety in the Unionized U.S. Oil Refining Industry,” the union’s report is based on the results of a 64-item survey sent to local unions at 71 USW-represented refineries nine months following the Texas City explosion. Findings were also based on a review of the literature on regulations, guidelines and lessons learned from previous refinery disasters.

The response rate to the survey was 72%. The 51 sites that responded represented 49 percent of the U.S. refining capacity and 22 refining companies, including majors and independents.

The survey was based on four contributing factors to the March 2000 explosion: use of atmospheric vents on process units, failed management of instrumentation and alarm systems, placement of trailers and unprotected buildings near high risk process facilities, and allowance of non-essential personnel in high risk areas during start-up and shutdown.

Workers at 90 percent of the 51 refineries said their facilities had at least one of the conditions (use of atmospheric vents, placement of trailers and allowance of non-essential personnel). Sixty-one percent of the respondents, representing 31 refineries, reported at least one incident or near miss involving at least one of the four contributing factors in the past three years.

Many of the refineries that had at least one of the four conditions reported after the BP (Nachrichten/Aktienkurs) explosion either did not take action or took actions judged as less than very effective. A review of past refinery disasters also revealed similar hazardous conditions being repeated and not learned from.

“These findings indicate that the potential exists in the refining sector for another Texas City style explosion,” said USW International President Leo W. Gerard. “Apparently, that incident did not make enough of an impression on refiners because they continue to not heed the lessons learned from the explosions, fires and other incidents plaguing the industry.”

The survey shows refiners are not following the letter and spirit of OSHA’s process safety standard. When 16 process safety systems for start-ups or shutdowns were rated, 87 percent of the respondents said the overall management of process safety systems at their sites was less than very effective.

Other shortfalls revealed were inadequate staffing, lack of safety preparedness for contract workers to enable them to contribute to incident prevention, insufficient refinery preparation for handling hazardous materials emergencies and lack of emergency response training for the general plant population.

“It is time for the oil industry to step up to the plate and promptly address these deficiencies in process safety,” said USW International Vice President Gary Beevers. “The oil companies can afford to do this and have a moral obligation to do so. A disaster like the explosion in Texas City is totally preventable.”

The USW calls on the refining sector to enact various process safety measures and involve workers and their union representatives in their implementation. These measures call on the industry to establish process safety teams, ensure process hazard analyses are done, eliminate atmospheric vents, manage instrumentation and alarms, create a definition of “safe placement,” ensure nonessential personnel are outside of hazardous areas, provide effective and participatory training and drills, ensure all operating manuals and procedures are in order, review and update management of change procedures, put into place an effective incident and near miss investigation program, and develop and put into action a national set of standardized process safety metrics.

Government intervention is also called for in strengthening OSHA and EPA standards and ensuring their rigorous enforcement. Changes in regulation are needed, such as the counting of contractor injuries and illnesses in oil companies’ OSHA logs. More OSHA inspectors are needed and should be given extra time to handle process safety inspections because they are complicated and time consuming.

“These proposals are doable, and while they can’t bring back the 15 workers killed at the BP Texas City refinery, they can make it harder for future deaths and injuries to occur,” Gerard said.

The USW is the largest industrial union in North America and represents over 1.2 million workers and retirees. In the oil sector, the union represents 30,000 workers.

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