Oil, gas worker-safety record weak, OSHA says

McClatchy NewspapersJune 10, 2010 

WASHINGTON — The oil and gas industry has a troubling record on worker safety, a congressional subcommittee was told Thursday.

That record includes a June 1999 gasoline pipeline explosion in Bellingham, Wash., that killed three people, including two 10-year-old boys who were playing in a creek; 15 who died and 170 who were injured at a BP oil refinery blast in Texas in 2005; and a fire at an Anacortes, Wash., refinery that killed seven workers, just weeks before an explosion and fire at the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 workers and released a massive oil spill in April.

"To me this doesn't seem simply like a string of bad luck; it appears to be a disregard for safety regulations and precautions across an entire industry," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the subcommittee's chairman.

Murray was furious that BP turned down an invitation to testify before her Employment and Workplace Safety Subcommittee of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. She tangled with an industry representative who sought to sidestep criticism of BP's worker safety record.

"Does the industry stand behind BP?" Murray asked Charles Drevna, the president of the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association.

"Stand behind is a broad word, ma'am," Drevna said.

"I would suggest the rest of the industry tell BP how it feels to be sitting there," Murray said.

In the past four months, 58 workers have died in explosions, fires and collapses at refineries, coal mines, the oil drilling rig and a natural gas-fired power plant construction site, said Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

After the 2005 explosion at the BP refinery in Texas, Barab said, OSHA zeroed in on safety problems at the nation's refineries. The results were "deeply troubling," he said, as inspectors found a significant lack of compliance and the same violations repeated at refinery after refinery.

"We are sick of the industry bragging about their safety record when children are burying their parents," Barab said. "Obviously, the status quo is not working."

Safety reports that the industry filed were misleading because they focused mostly on non-fatal accidents such as broken arms or twisted ankles and illnesses, Barab said. They also didn't cover contractor employees, who are being hired more and more frequently at refineries. Accidents that involve contractor employees aren't included in industry safety figures, he said.

All 15 employees who were killed at BP's Texas refinery were contractor workers, Barab said. "The deaths didn't show up in the company's workplace statistics," he said.

Kim Nibarger was visiting his parents in Anacortes, Wash., when he heard the explosion at the Tesoro Corp. refinery in April.

"I was home 15 minutes when I heard this big 'whamp' sound, " Nibarger testified. "I knew immediately what had happened."

Nibarger should know. He was working at another Anacortes-area refinery in 1998 when a fire killed six of his co-workers. Nibarger is now a health and safety specialist with the United Steelworkers union.

The oil industry is "basically self-regulated," he said, adding there have been 29 fires and explosions at refineries so far this year.

"It's like the fox guarding the henhouse: It might not stop a few chickens from disappearing," Nibarger said.

Drevna defended the industry's safety record while conceding that it could do better. He used the same worker safety statistics that Barab had previously criticized.

"We will never be done, but we are better than we were," he said.

When it comes to offshore oil rigs, Murray said, OSHA has a jurisdictional problem: Its authority ends at the beach. The Minerals Management Service and the Coast Guard have the offshore responsibilities. Along with Barab and Nibarger, Murray said that OSHA might need more authority and clout when inspecting refineries and other industry operations.

The subcommittee probably will hold another hearing with officials of the Coast Guard, the MMS and BP asked to testify, Murray said.

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