Oil Industry Develops New Safety Standards for Hazardous Worksites

June 22, 2007

An oil industry trade group said it has developed standards to better protect workers from explosions like the 2005 BP refinery in Texas explosion that killed 15 people and injured 170.

The American Petroleum Institute’s new standards are designed to meet the demands of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board that made an “urgent” recommendation in October 2005, requiring refineries to limit how close workers’ portable trailers can be placed near potentially hazardous operations.

The voluntary standards for refiners, such as Valero Energy Corp. and Exxon Mobil Corp., establish three “blast zones” in which portable buildings could be placed, depending on the trailer’s construction material and the size of the refinery unit. For example, trailers made of light wood would not be allowed within 330 feet (100.6 meters) of a potentially dangerous area.

Red Cavaney, the association’s chief executive, said on Wednesday refiners would decide whether and when to implement the recommended standards, but said the industry takes them “very seriously.”

Cavaney defended the speed with which the industry adopted the chemical safety board’s recommendations, saying they required thorough public review with input from experts in the field.

The safety board, which investigated the March 23 accident two years ago at London-based BP Plc’s Texas City refinery, found that nine trailers were located as close as 121 feet (36.88 meters) from a unit that exploded. It was the worst U.S. industrial accident in more than 16 years.

Workers in trailers as far as 480 feet (146.3 meters) away from the unit were injured, the safety board found, and trailers as far as 600 feet (183 meters) away were damaged.

The Chemical Safety Board issued a report earlier this year that partly blamed lax oversight by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for the accident.

William E. Wright, a member of the Chemical Safety Board, said in a statement Wednesday that the API’s action was encouraging and said the board will review its recommendations and vote on whether they are acceptable.

Federal regulators say they are stepping up scrutiny of oil refineries to identify any problems contributing to a spate of fatal accidents in recent years. Since 1992, 36 refinery accidents involving hazardous chemicals have caused 52 deaths and 250 injuries, making the industry the most dangerous in the country, according to OSHA.

Other fatal accidents have occurred at refineries in Bakersfield California, and Gallup, New Mexico.

In March, on the second anniversary of the explosion, House members called for OSHA reforms, arguing that it had not enforced safety rules.

Lawmakers also criticized the industry’s trade group for failing to expel members who don’t follow safety standards.

Assistant Labor Secretary Edwin G. Foulke Jr. said in March that OSHA would double to 280 the number of workers trained to conduct advanced inspections of refineries.

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