Stricter industrial-safety rules sought
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- At about 6:30 p.m. on Aug. 6, 2012, a pipe ruptured inside the No. 4 crude unit at the Chevron USA Inc. refinery in Richmond, Calif. A large, vapor cloud was released that engulfed 19 workers.
Two minutes later, the vapor cloud ignited. The workers escaped. No one was killed, and employees narrowly avoided serious injury. But in the weeks that followed the incident, about 15,000 area residents sought medical treatment for exposure to the toxic cloud.
Federal investigators found that the pipe involved was extremely corroded, and over a 10-year period, investigators say, Chevron "repeatedly failed . . . to apply inherently safer design principles and upgrade piping," steps that could have prevented the incident.
Now, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board is pointing to what happened at Chevron as proof of the need for a radical change in the way industrial safety is practiced and regulated.
CSB investigators recommend replacing the existing patchwork of regulations with a more rigorous "safety case" system that's been adopted in the United Kingdom, Norway and Australia.
As explained in a CSB report released Dec. 16, this system requires companies to demonstrate to regulators -- through a written "safety case report" -- how major hazards are to be controlled and risks reduced to "as low as reasonably practicable." The goal of the program is to shift responsibility for continued reductions in major accident risks from regulators to the companies.
The new CSB report comes as the Obama administration is considering ways to improve industrial safety across the country, in the wake of the April fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 people, injured hundreds and flattened part of the town of West, Texas.
CSB officials recommend the program for petroleum refinery regulation in California, but board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said California "could serve as a model for the nation by adopting this system."
"After exhaustively analyzing the facts, the CSB investigation team found many ways that major refinery accidents like the Chevron fire could be made less likely by improving regulations," Moure-Eraso said.
"Refinery rules need to focus on driving down risk to the lowest practicable level, rather than completing required paperwork," he said. "Companies, workers and communities will all benefit from a rigorous system like the safety case."
The draft CSB report on the Chevron fire says agency investigators have found there is "a considerable problem with significant and deadly incidents at petroleum refineries over the last decade."
In 2012 alone, the CSB tracked 125 "significant process-safety incidents" at U.S. petroleum refineries." The United States has experienced financial losses from refinery accidents that are at least three times that of industry counterparts in other countries, the CSB says, citing insurance industry statistics.
Over the past few years, the CSB also has found a variety of serious problems in other industries.
In West Virginia, for example, board investigators wrote highly critical reports after an August 2008 explosion that killed two workers at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute and after a series of January 2010 incidents that claimed one worker's life at the DuPont Co. in Belle.
So far, though, West Virginia and Kanawha Valley officials have not implemented the CSB's recommendation for a new program aimed at preventing future chemical accidents.
Nationally, the CSB has found in repeated investigations that federal Process Safety Management rules enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and federal risk-management requirements enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency have not worked consistently to prevent industrial accidents.
"In the last decade, the CSB has made a number of process-safety related recommendations to OSHA and the EPA . . . however, none of these important regulatory recommendations have been implemented, and there have been no substantive changes made to the PSM or RMP regulations to improve the prevention of major accidents," the CSB states in its Chevron report.
Don Holmstrom, director of the CSB's Western Regional Office, said, "What is lacking, and what the safety case regime requires, is an adaptable, rigorously inspected, goal-setting approach, aimed at continuously reducing risks to 'as low as reasonably practicable' -- known in the industry as ALARP."
Following the Sago and Upper Big Branch coal-mine disasters in West Virginia, investigative teams led by longtime mine-safety advocate Davitt McAteer recommended use of the Australian version of the "safety case" approach -- called the "duty of care" -- to help improve performance in the coal industry.
"Numerous regulatory bodies abroad require this risk-assessment technique for oversight of certain hazardous industries," McAteer's team stated in its report on Upper Big Branch, an April 2010 mine explosion that killed 29 workers. "Employers, employees and any others who may have an influence on hazards in a workplace, such as mining engineers and outside contractors, are required to do everything reasonably practicable to protect the health and safety of workers."
Moure-Eraso, the CSB chairman, said, "The safety case is being increasingly adopted around the world, and the U.S. safety system has fallen behind. Workers, the public and the industry itself would benefit greatly from the enhanced advantages of this more adaptable and effective approach to regulation.
"Other regimes have long since recognized the need for increased participation by workers and their representatives, transparency of information and the use of key process-safety indicators to ensure the system works to prevent major accidents."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.