By David Michaels

The Chemical Safety Board isn’t pulling its punches. Its report on the March 2005 BP refinery explosion which killed 15 workers is scathing in its criticism of BP, concluding that “organizational and safety deficiencies at all levels of the BP Corporation” caused the explosion.

More surprisingly, CSB also went after OSHA for falling down on the job. OSHA, according to the CSB didn’t have enough trained inspectors, didn’t make enough inspections, and didn’t bother enforcing the Process Safety Management (PSM) standard aimed at preventing explosions of this sort:

only 0.2% of the approximately 2,816 facilities in targeted, high-hazard industries received a planned OSHA process safety inspection each year. That’s about one planned inspection per 500 facilities


According to CSB, there was at least one county (Contra Costa, in California) that did a better job than OSHA in inspecting refineries. Here’s some strong words about OSHA from CSB:

As part of its investigation, the CSB looked at the role of OSHA in inspecting and enforcing safety regulations at refineries and chemical plants. Although the refinery had experienced numerous fatal incidents from 1985 to 2005, the investigation found that OSHA conducted only one planned PSM inspection at the Texas City Refinery, in 1998. Other, unplanned OSHA inspections of the Texas City Refinery occurred in response to accidents, complaints, or referrals; the report said that unplanned inspections are typically narrower in scope and shorter than planned inspections. Proposed OSHA fines during the twenty years preceding the March 2005 disaster – a period when ten fatalities occurred at the refinery – totaled $270,255; net fines collected after negotiations totaled $77,860. Following the March 2005 explosion, OSHA issued the largest penalty in its history to BP, over $21 million for more than 300 egregious and willful violations.

“OSHA’s national focus on inspecting facilities with high injury rates, while important, has resulted in reduced attention to preventing less frequent, but catastrophic, process safety incidents such as the one at Texas City,” the report reads. The report found that when the PSM standard was created, OSHA had envisioned a highly technical, complex, and lengthy inspection process for regulated facilities, called a Program Quality Verification or PQV inspection. The inspections would take weeks or months at each facility and would be conducted by a select, well-trained, and experienced team.

The CSB investigation found that few PQV inspections were done between 1995 and 2005. Federal OSHA conducted only nine such inspections in the targeted industries over that ten-year period, and none in the refining sector. State agencies in the 26 states that operate their own workplace safety programs conducted a total of 48 PQV inspections, including six at refineries. However, a number of states – including Texas, Louisiana, and New Jersey, where much of the U.S. oil and chemical industry is concentrated – rely upon federal OSHA to enforce workplace safety rules.

“On average from 1995 to 2005, only 0.2% of the approximately 2,816 facilities in targeted, high-hazard industries received a planned OSHA process safety inspection each year. That’s about one planned inspection per 500 facilities,” [Supervisory Investigator Don] Holmstrom said. The total number of U.S. facilities covered under the PSM standard is not known, since covered facilities are not required to identify themselves to the government; however, a similar regulatory program administered by the Environmental Protection Agency covers an estimated 15,000 sites.

The report noted that California’s Contra Costa County, which has its own industrial safety ordinance, inspects each covered facility every three years. A county staff of five engineers performs an average of 16 inspections per year. The U.K. Health and Safety Executive, which oversees a much smaller oil and chemical industry than do U.S. authorities, has 105 inspectors for high-hazard facilities; each covered facility in the U.K. is inspected every five years. Although OSHA did not provide requested information to the CSB investigation, available evidence indicates that OSHA has an insufficient number of qualified inspectors to enforce the PSM standard at oil and chemical facilities.

The report calls on OSHA to “identify those facilities at the greatest risk of a catastrophic accident” and then to “conduct comprehensive inspections” at those facilities. The report also recommends that OSHA hire or develop new, specialized inspectors and expand the PSM training curriculum at its National Training Institute.

“Rules already on the books would likely have prevented the tragedy in Texas City,” [CSB] Chairman Merritt said. “But if a company is not following those rules, year-in and year-out, it is ultimately the responsibility of the federal government to enforce good safety practices before more lives are lost. OSHA should obtain and dedicate whatever resources are necessary for inspecting and enforcing safety rules at oil and chemical plants. These facilities simply have too many potentially catastrophic hazards to be overlooked.”

So far, according to the New York Times, OSHA is not responding.

David Michaels heads the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) and is Professor and Associate Chairman in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.