Congress Turns Up Heat on OSHA

Two days after the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) unveiled a report alleging that OSHA has failed to provide effective oversight of BP's Texas City, Texas, refinery – where 15 workers were killed and 180 others were hurt in a 2005 explosion – OSHA became the target of Congressional scrutiny during a March 22 hearing on Capitol Hill.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, charged that because the Bush administration has transformed the agency from “a law enforcement organization to a so-called voluntary compliance organization,” he fears that the risk of injury and death remains high for workers in many U.S. oil refineries and chemical facilities.

“The BP explosion was the biggest workplace disaster in the last 18 years, yet it received very little Congressional scrutiny until today,” Miller said. “Even more upsetting is that 2 years after this catastrophe, we’re still seeing a disturbing pattern of major fires and explosions in U.S. refineries.”

Rep. Phil Hare, D-Ill. said that it is clear to him that Congress needs to take a “long look at OSHA and its effectiveness” and to see how much funding it is willing to allocate toward hiring more OSHA inspectors for refineries.

Hare also promised that he will “start kicking some OSHA people in the kneecaps” if the agency doesn't ratchet up its enforcement efforts.

CSB: OSHA Oversight of Texas City Refinery Was 'Ineffective'

CSB's 335-page report – unveiled March 20 and expected to be available to the public any day now – alleges that OSHA has neglected enforcement of its process safety management standard (29 CFR 1910.119, Process Safety Management of Highly Hazardous Chemicals) at oil and petrochemical facilities such as BP's Texas City refinery.

The CSB report asserts that OSHA in recent years has overlooked prevention of catastrophic process safety incidents such as the one that occurred at Texas City and instead has focused on inspecting facilities with high injury rates.

Speaking at the House hearing, CSB Chairwoman Carolyn Merritt testified that OSHA oversight of BP's Texas City, Texas refinery “was ineffective.”

“In recent years, OSHA has focused its inspections on workplaces with high injury rates, but these rates do not predict the likelihood of a catastrophic process accident at a facility," Merritt said.

Merritt testified that CSB's “exhaustive investigation into the BP accident” revealed that BP had not followed OSHA process safety regulations detailed in 29 CFR 1910.119. At the same time, Merritt said, “OSHA had not adequately inspected the facility to see if BP was complying with those regulations.”

As a result, Merritt testified, cuts in training, staffing, maintenance, equipment modernization and safety – which the investigation found were a result of significant budget cuts ordered by BP – left the Texas City facility vulnerable to catastrophe.

Although Merritt asserted that the Texas City refinery “was an extremely dangerous place to work by any objective standard” – 23 workers lost their lives in accidents at the facility in the 30 years prior to the 2005 tragedy – she pointed out that net OSHA fines in the 20 years preceding the 2005 disaster totaled $77,860. London-based BP PLC's total profit in 2006 was $22 billion.

Merritt also pointed out that CSB's investigation revealed that between 1995 and 2005, OSHA conducted only nine “comprehensive, planned process safety inspections” throughout the country, and none in the refining sector.

While OSHA did conduct unplanned inspections at BP's Texas City refinery in response to accidents, complaints or referrals, according to Merritt, such inspections are “typically narrower in scope and shorter than planned inspections.”

OSHA: U.S. Refineries Are a Priority

In response to the House hearing, OSHA – which has been bloodied by media coverage this week – issued a press release titled “OSHA Focuses on Refinery Safety.”

The agency asserted that it “continues to make the safety and health of workers in America's refineries a priority” and that the recent attention on refinery safety “reinforces the importance of this effort.”

“The refinery industry has been a major focus for OSHA,” OSHA Administrator Edwin Foulke Jr. said, “and the CSB report confirms we are on the right track.”

According to Foulke, the agency already has implemented two of the three major recommendations made in CSB's report and has increased the number of inspections in the refining industry. According to Foulke, OSHA has conducted an additional 50 refinery inspections so far in fiscal year 2007.

Foulke also stated that OSHA has trained more than 160 agency employees in the principles of conducting a PSM inspection. By August, Foulke said, OSHA will have 280 PSM-trained inspectors.

“These staff will ensure that under a new National Emphasis Program, every refinery under OSHA's jurisdiction is inspected,” Foulke said.

Miller said the committee will hold additional hearings on OSHA and will consider the need for legislation.

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