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Working In These Times

Monday, Jun 14, 2010, 7:40 am

OSHA: Refineries Ignore Safety, Workers Die

BY Lindsay Beyerstein

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An oil refinery in Denver, Colo.   (Photo courtesy of StuffEyeSee, via Flickr)

At least 58 workers in the energy sector have been killed on the job in the last four months. Among the dead are 11 oil workers on the Deepwater Horizon rig off the coast of Louisiana; 29 coal miners in the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia; 6 refinery workers at the Kleen Energy plant in Connecticut; and 7 refinery workers at the Tesoro Corp refinery in Washington State.

The explosive fire at the Tesoro plant was the deadliest incident at a U.S. refinery since the disaster at BP's Texas City refinery killed 15 workers in 2005.

The recent spate of high profile disasters in the energy sector moved the worker safety subcommittee of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to hold a hearing last week. The star witness was Jordan Barab, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health and a former acting head of OSHA.

Since OSHA doesn't have jurisdiction over oil rigs or coal mines, Barab's testimony focused on the dismal state of process safety in the U.S. refinery industry.

In the wake of the Texas City refinery disaster, OSHA launched a major program to increase process safety at virtually every refinery in the United States.

Five years after Texas City, Barab characterized the results of the program as "deeply troubling."

"[W]e are particularly disturbed to find even refineries that have already suffered serious incidents or received major OSHA citations making the same mistakes again," he said.

Barab characterized BP as one particularly recalcitrant repeat offender in an industry teeming with hardcore recidivists.

OSHA proposed an additional $87 million in penalties last year because BP had failed to make promised upgrades after the Texas City disaster. Just a few months later, the company racked up another $3 million in proposed penalties because OSHA found similar "egregious willful violations" at the BP-Husky refinery in Toledo, Ohio. The Toledo plant's violations were themselves repeats of violations that had been identified and corrected elsewhere in the plant after previous OSHA inspections.

An astonishing 70% of all violations stem from violations of the same four well-established principles of process safety, Barab reported.

Clearly, fines alone aren't getting through to the industry.

Another witness, Kim Nibarger, a safety specialist with the United Steel Workers, called for jail time for managers whose negligence results in deaths or serious injuries. Nibarger said managers who disregard safety standards are "no different" from careless drivers who kill with their cars. Negligence must have consequences.

"Only when the consequences of allowing workers to be injured or killed on the job are severe enough will companies take serious action to change their safety culture," Nibarger said.

 

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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