OSHA Cannot Commit to Full-Time Refinery Emphasis Program, Barab Says

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration cannot continue its full-time refinery national emphasis program due to resource limitations, but it will maintain an enforcement presence in the sector after uncovering a “disturbing” number of violations, a senior agency official said Oct. 27.

Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, said OSHA has opened inspections at 53 refineries since the program began in 2007, with five planned inspections remaining.

On average, OSHA has cited refineries for 17 violations per inspection and proposed $166,000 in penalties, Barab said in remarks at an international symposium on process safety management at the Mary Kay O'Connor Process Safety Center at Texas A&M University.

“Given the tragically ample number of opportunities to learn from catastrophes in this industry and the recognized potential for injuries and deaths from these well-known hazards, these numbers are disturbing--and we are currently developing a strategy to extend our presence in refineries,” he said. “We need to find a way to determine which refineries and which processes are most in need of OSHA's oversight so that we don't waste out time or the company's time in refineries that are doing a good job.”

OSHA began a two-year national emphasis program to inspect process safety management at refineries after the catastrophic accident at the BP North America Texas City, Texas, refinery in 2005. The refinery NEP was extended in 2009 (39 OSHR 725, 8/27/09).

Program Nearly Completed.

OSHA has nearly completed its emphasis program, under which it is inspecting every refinery under federal jurisdiction.

Eleven refinery workers have died in refinery accidents this year, including seven following an explosion at a Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Wash., according to statistics provided by the United Steelworkers.

OSHA also recently signaled that it plans to extend a pilot emphasis program focusing on process safety in chemical facilities nationwide. The chemical program was built upon the refinery program (40 OSHR 885, 10/28/10).

Lessons From Emphasis Program.

Barab said refineries should draw three lessons from OSHA's emphasis program: a strong workplace safety culture prevents catastrophic accidents; refiners must learn lessons from their mistakes; and injury and illness statistics do not sufficiently reflect the likelihood of a major accident.

Top management must adhere to safety practices “with transformative action, not just simple slogans” to promote safety throughout a refinery, he said.

“Process safety failures are typically low-frequency but high-consequence events,” Barab said. “Our [process safety management] systems have to be strong, and we cannot wait until we have an incident to discover that they were not.”

Furthermore, he said, more than 70 percent of the citations issued under the refinery emphasis program fall into the same four elements of process safety: mechanical integrity, process safety information, operating procedures, and process hazard analysis.

“Time and again, our inspectors are finding the same violations in multiple refineries, including those with common ownership--a clear indication that concerns and findings are not being communicated across corporations or throughout the industry or even within different units of the same refinery,” he said.

Finally, the industry must focus on leading indicators of process safety rather than injury and illness rates, Barab said (40 OSHR 442, 5/27/10).

Labor, Industry Diverge on Policy.

As the refinery emphasis program winds down, labor unions are urging the agency to increase enforcement by conducting follow-up inspections and inspecting voluntary protection program sites, while refiners contend OSHA should first better disseminate information the program has already uncovered before considering a new round of inspections.

The United Steelworkers told BNA Nov. 1 that OSHA should conduct a second round of inspections on all refineries under the emphasis program, extend the program to Voluntary Protection Program work sites, and in the long-term implement a safety-permit system.

OSHA's follow-up inspection at BP's Texas City refinery found the company failed to abate violations uncovered following the 2005 explosion.

“OSHA must send the entire industry the message that the same can happen to them,” Michael Wright, director of health and safety for the United Steelworkers, told BNA in an e-mail.

Wright also noted OSHA recently proposed to allow programmed inspections at work sites enrolled in the agency's Safety and Health Achievement Recognition program and he urged the agency to extend the policy to VPP sites.

“The industry is collectively experiencing just about one fire or serious release every week, almost all from failures of process safety management,” he said. “We have seen no evidence that VPP sites have fewer such incidents, or more effective process safety management programs.”

In the long-term, the agency should move toward a safety permitting system, similar to that used by the Environmental Protection Agency's risk management program, Wright wrote.

The National Petrochemical and Refiners Association, however, urged OSHA to concentrate on providing more safety information gleaned from settled or upheld citations.

“Currently, the citations are written in a way that it is difficult for other refiners to identify the root causes of citations,” David Egner, spokesman for the association, told BNA in a Nov. 1 e-mail. “Our members would like to get much more detailed information from OSHA on the citations that are upheld after settlements, so they can use this knowledge to strengthen their own safety programs whenever possible.”

By Greg Hellman

The text of Jordan Barab's speech at Texas A&M University is available at http://tinyurl.com/2v7eg7o.