Federal Investigators: Chemical Industry Has A Safety Crisis

Regulators: ‘Safety standards need to be improved and there is not time to waste.’

By Dave FehlingDecember 12, 2014 5:44 pm|

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board investigates industrial accidents. It says recent deadly explosions and chemical leaks in Texas make a strong case for action.

It’s been a tragic couple of years for some people who work around dangerous chemicals in Texas.

“Fertilizer plant on fire, there was an explosion; we have several buildings that have been destroyed,” said a dispatcher to first responders headed to a fertilizer business in the city of West. It was on the evening of April 17, 2013. Ten volunteer firefighters would be among the 15 people killed by the explosion.

Then last month in La Porte, workers at a DuPont pesticides plant called for help. From a 911 call from the plant: “We have five people unaccounted for; we have had a chemical release.”

Four of those workers would later be found dead, apparently overcome by chemical fumes.

“The industry is in a safety crisis in this country,” said Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairperson of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board. He spoke to News 88.7 from the board’s offices in Washington.

Using the La Porte fatalities as an example, Moure-Eraso said DuPont had been regarded as a safety leader in the industry. He said he didn’t want to prejudice their on-going investigation of the fatalities at the DuPont facility, but:

“I think it’s safe to say the safety standards need to be improved and there is not time to waste.”

The CSB last week formally announced that its number one priority is to push regulators to update safety standards that haven’t changed much in 20 years. For example, looking at work hours to prevent fatigued employees … and at design of facilities to minimize risk.

In Texas, the CSB’s proposed changes would not only affect refineries and chemical plants, but also oil and gas drilling operations.With drilling up, so are worker deaths. Texas leads the nation with 216 fatalities from 2008 to 2012.

For years, oil and gas operations have been exempt from federal requirements to have what’s called Process Safety Managemen which involves making detailed plans to reduce the risk of accidents.

“We believe companies are seriously under-regulated,” said Moure-Eraso.

To the contrary, the oil and gas industry says no new regulation is needed. Industry associations wouldn’t provide us with anyone to interview, but we reviewed written responses to federal regulators made on behalf of oil and chemical companies.

The upshot: the industry says the trouble isn’t with the existing rules, it’s with a few bad actors that don’t follow them and end-up having catastrophic accidents. One example industry cited was the explosion at a BP refinery in Texas City back in 2005. Fifteen workers died and the Chemical Safety Board laid some blame on how it said BP had failed to have rigorous audits of its safety systems.

But an industry association said the Texas City explosion was an “outlier” that wasn’t representative of the industry as a whole. Bottom line: no need to update current regulations which, if it were done, would cost an astronomical sum according to the industry.

But according to the Chemical Safety Board, those costs must be measured against lives and property lost when terrible accidents happen. The board’s managing director, Daniel Horowitz, says spending more on safety enforcement and compliance pays off.  He said they analyzed efforts in Europe where there are far more specialized government inspectors.

“They get the benefit of that in the form of much lower catastrophic accident rates about three to five times lower in Europe than they are here,” Horowitz told News 88.7.

The board’s proposals will be considered by OSHA and the US EPA which are expected to issue new rules in coming months.

flickr.com/spear_of_thor

An aerial photo of the West explosion site taken on April 22, 2013, several days after the blast.