Last week, OSHA’s area office in Wilmington issued citations to Valero Energy Corp’s Delaware City oil refinery, including four repeat* and nine serious violations of process safety management rules.  Because Valero boasts that its “process safety program instills safety and reliabiity at every refinery,” how is it that they have been found with REPEAT violations of OSHA’s process safety management standard.  A repeat violation means that Valero was cited previously for the same or substantially similar condition in the last three years. 

OSHA conducted its inspection of the Valero Delaware City site under its National Emphasis Program (NEP) for ”Petroleum Refining Process Safety Management (PSM).”    The NEP was launched in 2007 after OSHA was criticized for utterly failing to monitor in any comprehensive way employers’ compliance with the PSM standard.  In fact, the Chemical Safety Board chair, Carolyn Merritt, alerted us to the matter, noting in May 2007 congressional testimony:

“…in the ten years from 1995 to 2005, federal OSHA only conducted nine [comprehensive process safety] inspections anywhere in the country, and none in the refinery sector.”

The interesting fact about this particular Valero oil refinery is it is one of the few that can be inspected under this OSHA NEP.  The vast majority of Valero’s 14 U.S. sites are exempt from these comprehensive PSM inspections because they are participants in OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP).  (See FOM at page X(A)(1)(c)

It makes me wonder whether similar violations of the PSM standard would be found at the “inspection-exempt” Valero sites?  After all, it is the same employer, the same board of directors, the same executive team, and presumably the same safety policies and procedures at its sites.  Valero’s own website notes the company

“…has the most refineries certified as Star Sites, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s highest recognition of facilities that exceed safety expectations under OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program.”

and

Ten Valero refineries are Star Sites*…[and] fewer than 30 refineries nationwide hold the distinction.”

OSHA describes VPP Star sites as ”exemplary worksites with comprehensive, successful safety and health management systems.”  But what do REPEATED violations at Valero’s Delaware City refinery say about the true quality of the firm’s overall H&S program?? These were REPEATED violations of 

  • failing to conduct and document inspections and tests on process equpment 
  • failing to conduct proper process hazard analyses
  • failing to maintain adequate process safety information

These REPEATED violations mean that Valero was cited previously for the same or substantially similar condition in the last 3 years, AND the citations were a final order of the independent Review Commission (OSHRC) AND the citations were issued by federal OSHA.   (Under OSHA policy, citations issued in one of the 21 States that run their own OSHA program can’t be used as the basis for a repeat violation.)   

With ten other Valero sites exempt from these comprehensive inspections under the PSM NEP, and at least 56 other refineries (SIC 2911) also exempt under OSHA’s current policy, how does OSHA know whether similiar PSM failures are occurring at these refineries?  Is it any coincidence that at the upcoming VPP participants’s annual conference (Aug 24-27) I couldn’t find a single workshop on PSM?    (I used search terms “process,” “safety management,” “process safety,” and “highly hazardous.)  I did find, however, a whole category titled “behavior-based safety,” featuring 15 workshops.

Recall that the PSM standard is designed to address the “unexpected releases of toxic, reactive, or flammable liquids and gases in processes involving highly hazardous chemicals.”  When process management goes awry, the result can be catastrophic for workers and the community. 

A company’s acceptance into VPP is contingent in large measure on its annual injury and illness rates.  It must be at or below the national average for of their respective industries.   For a refinery, however, injury-incident rates are not likely to be a useful metric for process safety performance.  As noted in a recent GAO report, OSHA’s VPP: Improved Oversight and Controls Would Better Ensure Program Quality,  injury and illness rates may not be the best measure of program performance, especially given the descrepancies found in rates reported to OSHA and the rates calculated during on-site reviews.   I hope that the evaluation announced by OSHA to assess VPP will include a hard look at whether it is wise to build blanket exemptions from inspections to these sites (as well as sites designated as SHARP, strategic partnerships and alliances) and identification of performance measures that are appropriate for specific industries. 

 
*Based on information obtained from OSHA’s VPP webpage, Valero’s 10 VPP sites are: 

Valero Benicia Refinery Benicia, CA
Valero Wilmington Refinery Wilmington, CA 
Valero St. Charles Refinery Norco, LA
Valero Paulsboro Paulsboro, NJ
Valero – BIll Greehey Refinery East Plant Corpus Christi, TX
Valero – BIll Greehey Refinery West Plant Corpus Christi, TX
Valero Houston Plant Houston, TX
Valero Refining Texas City Texas City, TX
Valero Travel Services San Antonio, TX
 Valero, 3 Rivers Refinery Three Rivers, TX

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Celeste Monforton, MPH, DrPH is an assistant research professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health.  Her husband owns shares of Valero stock.

Comments

  1. #1 R. Davis Layne
    August 13, 2009

    Hello Celeste

    Thanks for noting we did not have have a workshop at our up coming VPPPA National Conference on PSM. It was my oversite. We had several at our conference last year and had a webniar on PSM for our members 3 weeks ago. However we have added the following workshop on PSM for this years conference.

    Tuesday, August 25: 8:00 am – 9:00 am
    Level: Beginner, Track: DOE/EPA/OSHA
    The workshop will provide an overview of OSHA’s National Emphasis Program for oil refineries and will additionally include a discussion on the Agency’s new National Emphasis Program focusing on Process Safety Management in the chemical industry. As the Agency approaches the conclusion of the 2nd year of the refinery emphasis program the inspection data and findings related to process safety management will be discussed.

    Moderator/Speaker: Richard E. Fairfax, CIH, Director, Directorate of Enforcement Programs, U.S. DOL, OSHA, Washington, DC

    I don’t know if you have been to one of our Regional or National VPPPA conferences or to a VPP worksite to experience first hand the employee commitment and involvement in workplace safety and health, however if you would like to attend our 2009 VPPPA National conference or visit a VPP worksite, I will arrange it.

    Thanks
    Davis

  2. #2 Celeste Monforton
    August 14, 2009

    Thanks for the info about the session at the VPPPA conference on OSHA’s findings from its PSM NEP. That will be a good addition to the program, especially if OSHA will be reporting what they’ve learned from these inspections and what the take away message is for facilities covered by PSM.

    Thanks to for the offers to attend a VPPPA conference or visit a VPP worksite—very generous of you. If I see a possibility of fitting a trip into my schedule, I’ll let take you up on the offer.