BP Tragedy Lesson for All Refineries and Companies, Merritt Says

The explosion at BP's Texas City in March 2005 was a terrible tragedy, but it served as a lesson of the consequences of failing to incorporate process safety into management-decision-making, according to Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) Chairman Carolyn Merritt.

“[BP] management focused their decision-making on cost-cutting and budget restraints, which was seriously impacting safety,” Merritt said during an exclusive interview with OccupationalHazards.com.

According to Merritt, many companies in the petrochemical industry, when faced with budget constraints, impact process safety by not buying proper equipment, for example, in order to save money or improve stock prices. Which, Merritt commented, is not the best management decision.

Implementing OSHA’s Process Safety Management (PSM) standard well as the EPA’s Risk Management (RMP) standard is the best course of action for petrochemical companies, said Merritt, who added both standards are “very good, well-written regulations that hit the nail on the head when looking at what you need to do as a manager when managing catastrophic risk.”

“Companies just need to verify and be assured that they indeed have implemented {PSM and RMP} regulations properly,” she asserted.

BP Should Have Known What Was Coming

Merritt explained the main reason why BP had such a catastrophic incident was because the company lost its focus on process safety and stopped looking at potential risks. Merritt said that after looking at numerous safety audits and safety management system audits done over the years, she noticed that there were several glaring warnings signs that BP management should have recognized, which left the Texas City refinery vulnerable to catastrophe.

Instead, BP managers chose to place their focus on improving personal safety and eliminating slips, trips and falls - a positive step, acknowledged Merritt - but more focus on process safety was needed.

“Their lost-time incidence rate was very low, but they seemed to be blind to the growing risk of catastrophic failures in their operations,” she said.

Looking at System Faults vs. Company Faults

Merritt said she was glad CSB took part in providing “important” recommendations on the ways it could revamp its corporate safety culture. BP has been CSB’s most high-profile investigation and case study to date, but Merritt said there have been other investigations in which CSB has been able to make considerable impact.

A January 2006 explosion at the Bethune Point Wastewater treatment Plant in Daytona Beach, Fla., in which two workers were killed, brought attention to the fact that 8.5 million state, country and municipal workers are not covered under the OSHA statute. In a report released in December, CSB recommended that government at all levels in states not covered by federal OSHA statute to take steps to protect its public employees. (For more about OSHA coverage for public workers, read "Congress Pushes OSHA Coverage for Public Workers.")

For Merritt, the BP and the Daytona Beach investigations are examples of how CSB increasingly is looking at the overall implications of an incident instead of finding fault with an individual company.

“I think one of the things that are a reflection of our growth and maturity is that we’re looking at greater implications of those investigations to look at how you might fix a system, so many companies might be aware and be able to fix the hazard that exists,” she explained.

Presentations, Videos Important for CSB Mission

Merritt acknowledged that accident investigations are just part of the CSB’s function and mission. The agency also performs presentations on outreach, which have increased from a total of 30 a year since she came onboard in 2002 to more than a 100 a year.

“They [outreach presentations] are highly sought after internationally as well as nationally for speaking on our lessons learned from our investigations,” Merritt said.

In addition, the agency has sought creative avenues to make the most impact from their investigations. For example, CSB issued an urgent recommendation for BP to commission an independent panel to investigate its corporate safety culture. Merritt also commended the agency’s safety videos, claiming they "very succinctly describe the cause of some of the accidents we have investigations and they serve as an excellent learning tool for millions of people.”

Moving Forward

Having played such an instrumental role in helping CSB become the high-performing agency that it is today, Merritt said she doesn’t know if she ever completely can retire from the safety and health field. However, she said she is looking forward to spending much-needed time with her family.

One of her immediate plans is to go on a 6,000-mile motorcycle tour with her husband, who has been living in Chicago for the past 5 years. In addition, she is excited to become a grandmother for the second time as he daughter is expecting her second child this October.

“I don’t know if I can ever detach myself from working I safety and health, but I have no specific plans right now to go back,” she said. “After the first year, we’ll see what happens.”

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