Managers at BP Plc's refinery in Texas City, Texas, are headed in the right direction to improve safety at the plant, where a 2005 explosion killed 15 workers and injured 180, a member of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board said at an industry conference this week.
William Wark said he was speaking for himself, and not the full three-member board, and based his comments on a visit to the BP refinery last week.
"I saw a sea change in the safety culture there," Wark said. "They are doing some stuff with safety culture that is quite impressive." But, "BP knows that they still have a lot to do there," he added.
BP suffered a series of setbacks over its handling of safety and environmental issues beginning with the March 2005 explosion, including three more deaths at the Texas City plant, and oil spills in Alaska.
The CSB is now investigating another death at the giant Texas refinery. In January, supervisor Joseph Gracia was killed when a 500-pound (227 kg) metal lid blew off a hydrocracking unit.
Wark said he did not know when CSB investigators would complete their probe into Gracia's death.
Most investigations by the Chemical Safety Board last up to a year. The board is charged with investigating U.S. chemical plant accidents. It has no regulatory or enforcement powers.
The CSB's 2-year probe of the March 2005 blast found that cost-cutting had contributed to an unsafe environment at the refinery and blamed all levels of the company's safety culture, including upper management.
Among the improvements at the Texas City refinery Wark pointed to were modernization work and new construction as well as changes in the way workers and managers operate.
New fire control systems have been installed, a burn treatment unit is now on site, a helicopter pad has been built to make access easier for helicopter ambulances and work trailers have been eliminated from the plant's grounds.
BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward, who took over after the 2005 explosion, has said the company would address its safety and environmental record.
The company agreed in October to pay $373 million to settle U.S. charges over the Texas City blast, Alaska oil pipeline leaks, and allegations of propane market manipulation.
That agreement came after the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined BP $21.4 million for worker safety violations in the 2005 explosion. BP also has set aside some $2.1 billion to pay claims from the blast.
Wark said he liked the new BP policy in force at Texas City that encourages workers to report safety concerns.
"If the facility manager is told of a safety issue, and he does nothing about it, a new system is in place so the worker who wants to report it can go around the manager to report the problem," Wark said.
"BP Texas City is a cautionary tale for the whole industry," Wark said on the sidelines of the National Petrochemicals and Refiners Association conference in San Diego.
"I've had representatives from other companies say that, as a result of what happened at BP, they've changed the way they are thinking about process safety," he said. (Additional reporting by Erwin Seba in Houston; Editing by Walter Bagley)
March 12, 2008