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The Times: A lack of accountability is at the heart of BP’s guilt: ‘a cowboy outfit’

January 17, 2007

On March 23, 2005, 15 people went to work at BP’s refinery at Texas City. They did not come home. They were killed by a huge explosion, perhaps the worst accident in an American workplace in the past 20 years.

The Baker report will fail to satisfy the families of those victims and the 170 other people that were injured in the disaster. The 374-page report, infuriatingly, offers no meaningful explanation of what actually happened at Texas City. 
 
James Baker, the former Secretary of State, and his panel, set out to judge the safety culture of BP, not to apportion blame. This is partly because others have been tasked with that job and partly, one suspects, because BP is seeking to contain, rather than encourage litigation.

It is also, partly, because there is no single person to blame. The deaths were caused because trailers were placed too close to an isomerisation process unit that handled hazardous materials. The blowdown drum on the unit should have been fitted with a flare, so that highly flammable liquid would burn off rather than leak into the atmosphere. It was not. The drum was built in the 1950s and refitted in 1997 — and for all those years it operated without a flare. Long before BP acquired Texas City, there was an explosion waiting to happen.

Nonetheless, the Baker report administered the equivalent of a public flogging for BP, not just painful but humiliating. What was once Britain’s most respected company has been publicly disgraced. Mr Baker has drily savaged BP’s leaders for being full of empty aphorisms about best practice, while systematically failing to put in place process safety management. BP has claimed to be a corporate paragon; it was portrayed yesterday as a cowboy outfit.

The Baker team concludes: BP’s safety problems are systemic; worker-management relations had broken down; safety resources were insufficient; BP’s focus was “short term”. But watching Lord Browne, the BP chief executive, and John Manzoni, the head of refining, in a live webcast to a press conference in Houston, one line of the Baker report reverberated:

“BP has not demonstrated that it has effectively held executive management and refining line managers and supervisors, both at the corporate level and at the refinery level, accountable for process safety performance at its US refineries.”

This is the lesson that BP seems stubbornly unwilling to learn. At the heart of a safety culture is accountability. Lord Browne clearly seemed to be chastened. He is determined to reform the company. But he claimed yesterday that his decision last week to bring forward his retirement had nothing to do with the Baker report. Likewise, Mr Manzoni insisted that he would not resign.

Their insistence that they should not be scapegoats may be understandable. In a sense, they did nothing wrong: the crime at Texas City was one of omission, not commission. But they are responsible for the absence of a safety culture, for the inadequacies of management.

If BP is serious about establishing a culture of safety, it needs to embrace the principle of accountability from the top.

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,630-2551319.html

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