Refineries Facing Tighter OSHA Scrutiny

Spurred by the March 23, 2005, explosion at BP's Texas City, Texas, refinery – as well as by the refining industry's poor track record of catastrophic incidents – OSHA said it is ratcheting up its oversight of petroleum refineries.

The agency announced that it is launching a national emphasis program in an effort to determine if refineries are complying with its process safety management (PSM) standard (29 CFR 1910.119, Process Safety Management of Highly Hazardous Chemicals).

As part of the emphasis program, OSHA promised that it will inspect 81 refineries over the next 2 years.

In a June 7 directive, OSHA said that the emphasis program was prompted by the large number of incidents involving catastrophic releases of highly hazardous chemicals at refineries. At BP Texas City, for example, 15 workers died and more than 180 others were injured in 2005 when flammable liquid hydrocarbon accidentally was released into the atmosphere and ignited.

According to OSHA's records, accidental releases of hazardous chemicals at refineries since May 1992 have resulted in 52 worker deaths and 250 injuries.

“Since the PSM standard was promulgated by OSHA in 1992, no other industry sector has had as many fatal or catastrophic incidents related to the release of [highly hazardous chemicals] as the petroleum refining industry,” OSHA said in the directive.

OSHA said that the national emphasis program “is just one of multiple significant enforcement projects in the oil, gas and refining industries.” The agency noted that two regional emphasis programs are underway in Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico in an effort to cut workplace injuries and fatalities in the oil and gas well drilling and petrochemical industries.

OSHA Oversight Has Been Criticized

In recent months, OSHA's oversight of the refining industry has come under fire.

The Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board's (CSB) final report on the 2005 BP Texas City disaster asserted that OSHA failed to enforce its PSM standard at petrochemical facilities such as BP Texas City.

In light of its findings, CSB called on OSHA to step up its inspection and enforcement at U.S. Oil refineries and chemicals plants and urged OSHA to require oil and chemical companies “to evaluate the safety impact of mergers, reorganizations, downsizing and budget cuts.” When CSB issued its report March 20, Foulke immediately announced that OSHA was “implementing a national emphasis program to ensure that every refinery under its jurisdiction is inspected and all employees are protected.”

In a June 12 report examining the causes of a 2006 fatal explosion at an oilfield in Raleigh, Miss., CSB concluded that OSHA should ratchet up the number of inspections in Mississippi's oil and gas production facilities to reduce unsafe work practices. CSB discovered that OSHA had not inspected the oilfield in the 3 years prior to the explosion and had not conducted a planned inspection at any of the nearly 6,000 oilfields in Mississippi in the preceding 5 years.

Petroleum Industry Ready to Cooperate

Cindy Schild, refining issues manager for the American Petroleum Institute (API), said that “safety has been a priority” within the refining industry and promised cooperation with OSHA on its national emphasis program.

“The industry is willing and ready to work with [OSHA] on these inspections and address any safety concerns that may be out there,” Schild told

Schild added that in the wake of BP Texas City, refineries have been reevaluating their safety protocols and practices.

Prem Nair, spokesman for Exxon Mobil Corp.'s downstream operations, asserted that the Irving, Texas-based oil giant “recognizes the importance of process safety and aggressively manages it through our comprehensive and long-standing Operations Integrity Management System to prevent fires, explosions and releases of hydrocarbon liquid and vapors.”

“Consistent with our normal practice of cooperating with OSHA and other regulatory audits, Exxon Mobil will cooperate with OSHA on its new [national emphasis program],” Nair said.

BP spokesman Ronnie Chappell also promised the company's cooperation.

“We continue to work with OSHA on a day-to-day basis to improve safety management and performance at our facilities throughout the United States,” Chappell told

Emphasis Program Will Differ From Previous PSM Enforcement

According to OSHA's June 7 directive – which provides guidance on the national emphasis program to OSHA national, regional and area offices as well as to state-plan states that choose to implement similar programs – refinery inspections under the program will be conducted by a team of compliance officers.

The directive outlines the qualifications needed to become team leaders and team members. According to the directive, team leaders “must have prior experience with chemical industry safety” and must have attended OSHA Training Institute Course 3410, Advanced Process Safety Management.

According to the agency, the new national emphasis program will differ from the program-quality-verification (PQV) inspection approach detailed in a 1992 OSHA directive.

The PQV approach, OSHA said, “employs a broad, open-ended inspection strategy and uses a more global approach to identify compliance deficiencies.” In contrast, the new national emphasis program provides OSHA compliance officers “with a tool to evaluate for compliance with the standard.”

“This tool identifies a particular set of requirements from the PSM standard from which [compliance officers] are to review documents, interview employees and verify implementation for specific processes, equipment and procedures,” OSHA said in the directive.

According to the directive, OSHA in past inspections has observed that refineries and large chemical plants typically “have extensive written documentation related to process safety management, but the implementation of the written documentation has been inadequate.” Consequently, the agency wants compliance officers to “focus on the implementation of the various PSM elements and ensure that employers do what they have committed to do in their PSM documentation.”

To view the directive, click here.

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