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Editor’s Page: Are we taking safety seriously?

| By Rebekkah Marshall

Negative opinions regarding the adequacy of contemporary process-plant safety certainly exist in the public, governmental and private sectors. Any way you look at it, a harsh truth for the chemical engineering profession is that for every thousand or so thankfully uneventful operations, a pessimistic residue lingers from a tragic incident of the past. That presence continually reminds us to heed the valuable lessons learned with each case, in hopes that it will go a long way toward preventing subsequent, if not more devastating, events in the future.

In that context, the fatality that resulted from yet another explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery on January 14th, literally adds insult to injury. This is the third death at the facility in less than three years since the 2005 explosion that caused 15 deaths and 180 injuries. The latest explosion prompted the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) to open another investigation of the facility last month.

According to William Wark, one of three board members of the CSB, a number of factors were weighed in the decision to proceed with this investigation. "These factors included the severity of the accident, the likelihood that hazardous chemicals were involved, and the learning potential for BP and other refiners that operate similar hazardous processes." The CSB also considered the serious history of accidents at the Texas City refinery, Wark adds, as is consistent with the CSB’s procedures. He notes that over the past 32 years, a total of 41 people have died in workplace accidents at the site. BP is cooperating with the investigation and has provided witnesses and information on a voluntary basis. CSB’s goal for its query is indeed to determine as precisely as possible what happened to cause this unfortunate event and to make recommendations to BP and others to prevent similar accidents in the future.

Given the pattern of events at this refinery alone, the obvious rhetorical question is whether we are, in fact, learning our lessons. Indeed, a survey released by the United Steelworkers (USW) union late last year, concludes that the conditions that led to BP’s March 2005 explosion are widespread throughout the petroleum refining sector and that the industry is failing to learn from such explosions and near misses. Titled "Beyond Texas City: The State of Process Safety in the Unionized U.S. Oil Refining Industry," the report is based on the results of a 64-item survey sent to local unions at 71 USW-represented refineries nine months following the 2005 incident.

The survey was based on four contributing factors to the March 2005 explosion: use of atmospheric vents on process units, failed management of instrumentation and alarm systems, placement of trailers and unprotected buildings near high-risk process facilities, and allowance of non-esesential personnel in high-risk areas during startup and shutdown.

Workers at 90% of the 51 refineries that responded said their facilities had at least one of the conditions, while 61% of the respondents, representing 31 refineries, reported at least one incident or near miss involving at least one of the four contributing factors in the past three years. These incidents do not include last month’s explosion at Alon USA Energy, Inc.’s Big Spring refinery, which injured four and temporarily shut down production at the 70,000-barrel-a-day facility in West Texas.

As investigators try to determine the specific causes of these events and how to improve the state of process safety throughout the industry, at least one thing is crystal clear now: Once again, the chemical process industries are receiving a loud wakeup call, and it beckons all of us to take process safety more seriously.