Safety Risks

The safety risks are industry wide and nation wide.  A letter from the US Dept of Labor to all the country’s refinery managers said, “In the last fifteen years, the petroleum refining industry has had more fatal or catastrophic incidents related to the release of highly hazardous chemicals (HHCs) than any other industry sector. We are particularly concerned that our inspection teams are seeing many of the same problems repeatedly.”

Rafael Moure-Eraso, the Chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, said, “We have a problem with the refinery industry. We have decreasing staff levels, disinvestment in safety, a lack of training, and accidents or near-misses — indicators of catastrophe — being ignored.”  U.S. refineries have sustained financial losses from accidents at a rate much higher than their overseas counterparts — four times as high, according to a 2006 report by Swiss Re, the world’s second-largest reinsurer.  They indicated that the gap between refineries and those in other parts of the world was widening.

Russ Elveston, a forensic engineer and safety consultant retired from OSHA said, “All the units are working at higher capacity, higher pressure, higher throughput…hazards have increased simply because the units operating now produce more than they did 15 or 20 years ago. When there’s a release, the results tend to be a little more significant.”  On April 2, 2010 the Chemical Safety Board Chairman John Bresland said, “The CSB has 18 ongoing investigations. Of those, seven of these accidents occurred at refineries across the country. This is a significant and disturbing trend that the refining industry needs to address immediately.”  Michael Silverstein, head of the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries’ Division of Occupational Safety and Health and a former federal OSHA policy director said, “The regulatory scheme at both the state and federal levels is flawed.  Right now, it’s a catch-me-if-you-can system, and the consequences of being caught are relatively small.”

According to a 2012 report from the Center for Public Integrity, refinery workers describe, “a climate in which safety takes a back seat to ramped-up production. Rather than schedule top-to-bottom maintenance outages, which take units out of operation for extended periods, equipment is being pushed hard, sometimes beyond its design life, the workers say. They have a term for it: ‘Run to failure.’”

“They’re managing their shareholders’ investments,” Dave Campbell, secretary-treasurer of United Steelworkers Local 675, which represents workers at five refineries in the Los Angeles area, said of the oil companies. “The price we pay is with our lives and our health.”

Despite a special inspection program launched by OSHA in 2007 — and mirrored by most states that have their own safety programs — problems continue to occur at refineries with stunning regularity. 24 of the 58 refineries examined by federal officials as of November 2010 had fires or explosions after the inspections were completed.

According to a 2010 City Weekly article, Utah refinery workers say, “Mind-numbing overtime is frequently part of the internal inspections because the operators lose profits while the facility is not in production. “Overtime is now the norm, much of it forced.”  California maintains a steady presence at refineries rather than simply dropping in, inspecting and writing citations.  Utah officially inspects refineries once a year, but many refinery workers say even that doesn’t happen.

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