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BP refinery deaths top industry in U.S.

Monday, May 16, 2005

BP refinery deaths top industry in U.S.

Fatalities 10 times those of Exxon Mobil


BP leads the U.S. refining industry in deaths over the past decade, with 22 fatalities since 1995 — more than a quarter of those killed in refineries nationwide, an analysis of industry statistics, news accounts and accident reports shows.

The company’s total comprises a worker killed this month at the company’s Cherry Point refinery north of Seattle, 15 contractors who died in a March explosion in Texas City, Texas, and those who died in six other fatal accidents.

Nick Karuso, a 58-year-old employee of Cascade Refinery Services, was found dead May 3 inside a refinery vessel he had been pressure washing at the Whatcom County refinery run by BP, according to a spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor and Industries.

The department is still investigating, the spokeswoman said.

More than 10 times as many people have died in BP refineries as in those owned by Exxon Mobil Corp., considered the company’s major U.S.-based peer.

BP has paid about $20,000 in federal and state fines in connection with five of those fatal accidents, and investigations of three others remain open.

But in the weeks before accidents at Cherry Point and Texas City, the oil giant’s dismal record landed BP on an internal federal watch list of companies “indifferent” to their legal obligations to protect employee safety because of a fatal explosion in Texas City in September 2004 that killed two pipefitters and injured a third.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration accused BP of a “willful” violation of its rules, leading to the accident.

OSHA’s Enhanced Enforcement program “zeroes in on employers with the gravest violations who have failed to take their safety and health responsibilities seriously,” Jonathan Snare, acting assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, said in a recent speech.

BP is the only major oil company on that list, said John Miles, OSHA’s regional director.

Although the list is not made public, it is an exclusive club that includes construction contractors with bad records and industrial employers such as McWane Industries, the Alabama company with one of the nation’s highest total of workplace fatalities.

Under the program, OSHA inspectors were to conduct follow-up inspections at BP’s Texas City refinery and also look for and target potential systemic problems at BP plants in other states.

But before that happened, the Texas City refinery again exploded on March 23. The blast killed 15 contractors and injured more than 100 other people, many of whom had been working inside temporary trailers near an outdated operating unit that was restarted without warning or routine evacuations that day.

“We had not been back out there because we had just finished issuing the (previous citation) three weeks before,” Miles said. “But they would have been under much more scrutiny.”

The fact that Texas City has had repeated fatalities and repeated fines is a sign of potential trouble within BP, said Charles Jeffress, a former director of OSHA.

“It’s their biggest refinery, and you’d think this would get some attention, so if their flagship’s not getting attention, well, shame on them,” he said.

In response to questions from The Houston Chronicle, BP’s Lord John Browne said that he personally deeply regretted the Texas City accident and its effect on BP’s reputation.

“BP takes responsibility for what happens at its sites,” he said. “We want BP to be a safe place to work. So as well as mourning for those we have lost, we are determined to learn from this tragedy and improve our safety record.”

BP spokesman Hugh Depland insisted that BP makes safety a priority and that there have been “significant upgrades at Texas City” in recent years.

“As a result of the previous incidents we’ve made a number of changes in safety — including increased safety reviews by all members of the leadership team, an enhanced safety team for all employees and creation of a full-time safety audit team,” Depland said.

The Texas City explosion was the eighth time this decade a fatal accident had been reported at a BP-owned plant — and the third fatal accident in Texas City alone.

No other U.S. refining company reported as many deaths over the decade, according to an analysis of 80 deaths described in OSHA inspection records, newspaper reports and lawsuits, interviews with major oil companies and government and industry statistics.

Among big oil companies, only Shell and its Houston-based refining companies came close to BP’s death toll. Shell Oil Products, predecessor Equilon Enterprises and sister company Motiva Enterprises together recorded 11 deaths — half the BP total.

The last fatality was in 2001, and in that case Motiva was prosecuted for negligent homicide in Delaware; it also paid a $10 million fine earlier this year in a related federal environment lawsuit.

Before the Texas City explosion in March, the decade’s most deadly refinery accident was at a refinery in Anacortes owned by Equilon Enterprises, then a partnership between Royal Dutch Shell and Texaco.

On the day before Thanksgiving in 1998, an explosion rocked the small Puget Sound port town, a hub for San Juan Island ferries. Six men who had been attempting to clean a refinery unit died in the blast: James Berlin, 38; Theodore Cade, 23; Warren Fry, 50; David Murdzia, 30; Wayne Dowe, 44; and Ronald Granfors, 49.

State OSHA investigators later determined that men had been sent in to clean when the unit was far too hot to handle safely. Calling the deaths entirely preventable, they issued a $4.4 million fine. Three years after the accident, the refinery agreed to pay $45 million to the six men’s families — at the time the largest wrongful-death lawsuit in Washington history.

In BP’s case, 19 of the company’s 22 refinery deaths came in the past 18 months, including the Cherry Point accident, two separate explosions in Texas City and the fall of a plant water maintenance worker through a rotted railing in 2004 at the Whiting, Ind., refinery.

Naomi Briner, whose husband, Terry, fell headfirst into metal when a corroded railing gave way at the Indiana refinery last year, said she didn’t think BP or OSHA inspectors who fined them $1,625 took safety violations seriously enough.

“I have a BP paper that says we will provide our employees with a safe work environment, but there wasn’t one for my husband,” said Briner. “I don’t feel like a $1,625 fine is enough of a motivator for them.”

In Texas City, at least, BP officials might have focused so much on individual worker safety that they missed problems with overall system safety, said Glenn Erwin, a former Texas City refinery employee who monitors refinery safety nationwide for the Paper Allied-Industries and Energy Workers International Union.

“They spend all their time saying ‘Don’t strain your back, don’t get dirt in your eye,’ ” he said.

Safety statistics improve because more workers are avoiding minor injuries, but lurking problems, such as the outmoded ventilator stack (known as a vent stack) that spewed liquid and gas before igniting, have been neglected.

“A good company will investigate all accidents, incidents and near misses and say, ‘We’ll fix what we find, and we’ll follow it to completion’ ” Erwin said. “In BP’s case, they found the problem years ago — the vent stack — but they never fixed it.”

In 2005, Management and Excellence, a Madrid, Spain-based organization that rates companies on their ethics, compared BP with eight other large petroleum companies. It rated BP 69 — the same score as Mexico’s Pemex in the area of safety and health. ExxonMobil scored 92.

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