OSHA Hikes Scrutiny of Chemical Plants, Refineries

Wednesday, November 17, 2010 @ 03:11 PM gHale

The feds are intensifying their watch of refineries and chemical plants.
OSHA’s scrutiny of the refinery industry and of chemical facilities covered by the Process Safety Management standard will increase, said Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary of OSHA in a late October speech at the 2010 Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center International Symposium in College Station, TX.
OSHA already said it planned to continue the Chemical NEP until it can expand nationally. Facilities subject to unprogrammed inspections are those that process large amounts of highly toxic flammable chemicals and gases.
Barab said OSHA has concerns because inspectors found violations.
“In May, when I addressed members of the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association meeting in San Antonio, I pointed out that in the prior three months alone, 58 workers had died in explosions, fires and collapses at refineries, coal mines, an oil drilling rig, and a power plant construction site,” Barab said. “OSHA has been particularly concerned about the recent number of serious incidents at refineries that have scalded, burned or struck down workers. We are tracking these catastrophes and looking for trends, including problems resulting from aging facilities. Since the BP Texas City explosion in 2005, OSHA has counted over 20 serious incidents in refineries across the country.
“In case after case, disaster after disaster, our investigations point to process safety-related problems and, most likely, systemic safety and health problems not just in one company but in entire industries.”
He said the Refinery NEP has resulted in inspections opened at 53 refineries, with five remaining. The inspections resulted in an average of 17 violations per inspection with average penalties of $166,000. “Given the tragically ample number of opportunities to learn from catastrophes in this industry and the recognized potential for injuries and deaths from well-known hazards, these numbers are disturbing,” he said, “and we are currently developing a strategy to extend our presence in refineries.”
The Chemical NEP has resulted in 136 inspections with an average of nine violations each. Barab shared three concepts that he said will save more workers’ lives:
First: Effective process safety programs and strong workplace health and safety culture are critical for success in preventing catastrophic events.
Second: Industries need to learn from their mistakes. We know the major causes and we know the remedies. Yet companies do not apply lessons learned and the same problems surface to threaten workers again and again.
Third: Numbers don’t tell the whole story. Focusing on low DART rates alone won’t protect you from disaster. They need new metrics.