California PSM Rule Could Have Prevented Exxon Mobil Blast

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By Stephen Lee

Jan. 15 — While it is impossible to say whether California's pending process safety management rule would have prevented a recent explosion at an Exxon Mobil Corp. refinery, several of the rule's provisions go straight to the problems revealed by the accident, a state official said Jan. 13.

For example, the rule would have required managers at Exxon Mobil's Torrance, Calif., facility to do a more thorough hazard analysis, taking previous major incidents into account in a rigorous and transparent way, said Clyde Trombettas, a district manager specializing in process safety management at California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA).

Trombettas was speaking at a public meeting convened at Torrance City Hall by the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. Last February, two Exxon Mobil workers were injured in an explosion in the refinery's electrostatic precipitator, a piece of equipment that controls air pollution (45 OSHR 248, 3/12/15).

An interagency task force called on California in a February 2014 report to make specific rule changes to protect refinery workers. State regulators have since drafted a new rule that takes into account many of the recommendations the CSB made after a 2012 fire at a Chevron refinery in the San Francisco Bay area.

Mechanical Integrity, Culture Change

The proposed rule also contains tough provisions regarding the mechanical integrity of refinery equipment. These provisions could have prevented hydrocarbons from flowing through a leaking slide valve into a reactor at the Torrance refinery, where they found an ignition source and exploded, Trombettas told the CSB board members.

The rule further lets workers stop dangerous work without fear of reprisal, which also was at issue at the Torrance facility, where operators allegedly had concerns but were ordered to keep working anyway, Trombettas said.

Another provision requires employers to perform a process safety management culture assessment, which Trombettas said is “vital to safe operation.”

Trombettas said he believed the workers at Exxon Mobil are dedicated professionals who care about safety.

“What sometimes gets them in trouble is that there's a culture of ‘run baby run,' versus taking an opportunity and possibly having to shut a unit down,” he said. “Having a culture like that can be very burdensome, I believe, on really good workers who want to do the right thing but are getting pressure to make, instead of a good decision, maybe a poor decision.”

Next Steps for Rule

Cal/OSHA will kick off the formal rulemaking process by sending changes to its proposed PSM regulation, along with an economic analysis, to the Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board by the first week of February, Trombettas said. The public will then be allowed to comment.

After the board adopts the changes, the proposal will be sent to California's Office of Administrative Law for approval. The final revised standard is expected to go into effect by January 2017, Trombettas said.

“It's moving forward very well and I'm pretty proud of the process,” he said.

Steelworkers Support New Rule

During the same meeting, United Steelworkers health and safety specialist Kim Nibarger said the new rule is needed because the old rule “hasn't worked as well as we thought.”

As evidence, Nibarger offered the fact that the refinery industry self-reports an average of 44.5 fires per year. “That's pretty serious, when you have a process safety event that's allowing material to get outside of the pipes, almost a fire a week,” Nibarger said.

That statistic doesn't even include releases, leaks or other process-related events that, “outside of sheer luck, haven't found an ignition source or been more damaging,” Nibarger said.

He said the proposed rule doesn't include everything either labor or industry wanted. “But I think it's something we can live with,” Nibarger said, adding that it will lead to safer refineries.

Worker Input Provisions Hailed

Speaking on the same panel, Charlotte Brody, vice president of health initiatives at the Blue-Green Alliance, applauded the rule's provisions that give workers a greater voice in workplace decisions.

“You're not going to get the full value of both sets of problem-solving skills if the managers have all the big, cushioned decision-making chairs at the table and the workers are allowed to make suggestions from the little chairs at the back of the room,” Brody said.

Earlier in the meeting, Brian Ablett, manager of the Exxon Mobil Torrance refinery, defended the company, saying it has layers of protections in place that would mitigate the impact of any toxic release.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington at stephenlee@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com