BP and worker safety

by Henry Farrell on December 19, 2006

The FT has two “great”:http://www.ft.com/cms/s/4cd813b2-8dff-11db-ae0e-0000779e2340.html “articles”:http://www.ft.com/cms/s/b77c5102-8ec1-11db-a7b2-0000779e2340.html (behind the paywall unfortunately) on how a deliberately fostered culture of corner-cutting at BP led to disaster. Some highlights below the cut.

BP documents show it often granted waivers to run potentially problematic wells. … Before a settlement with BP that required his silence on this matter, Mr Brian told the FT that an investigator with the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety & Health Administration (Osha) came to interview him after the accident. When he told Mr Brian that others had claimed BP had done a mechanical integrity test to ensure the safety of the well before returning it to service, Mr Brian was dumbfounded. “They’re lying,” he said. After the oil worker raised the possibility that BP might take action against him for disagreeing, the investigator suggested Mr Brian file a written complaint with Osha for his own protection. …Mr Brian had long felt regulators needed to tighten oversight of BP; now he believed it imperative. “Because there is no regulation from the state, BP [officials] feel comfortable in giving themselves ‘safety variances’ or ‘waivers’ whenever they don’t have enough people or time to do something right,” he said at the time. …Initially, BP denied Mr Brian’s charges. Ronnie Chappell, BP’s US spokesman, insisted BP had completed a mechanical integrity test on well A-22. But when Mr Brian persisted in challenging that claim, the company recanted, admitting it had been wrong, and cited “some miscommunication or misinformation”. …Several BP workers expressed concerns that their management was letting them down by skimping on safety, covering up violations and putting pressure on anyone who spoke out about it.

But soon after filing his statement with Osha on Mr Shugak’s accident, Mr Brian was plunged back into his uncomfortable role as advocate for workers’ grievances. Things started to go badly for him on the job. He had trouble with his supervisors. He was ejected from safety meetings and said management called him “troublemaker” and “shit-stirrer” in front of others, also accusing him of being mentally ill in what he called a “bogus letter of reprimand”. During an informal grievance procedure, management agreed to destroy the letter, said Mr Brian. But instead they made it available as a public record to the state and BP staff, he added. BP denied harassing Mr Brian, saying it welcomed constructive criticism but was not willing to comment on individual personnel issues. Mr Marshall told congressional hearings this year: “Harassment, intimidation, retaliation and discrimination against workers who raise concerns are not tolerated within BP.” In the same testimony, Mr Marshall admitted that he did transfer one employee, Richard Woollham, in 2005 after finding evidence of an “atmosphere of intimidation” in his pipeline inspection operations team.

In early 2004, Chuck Hamel, a longtime campaigner for Alaska oil workers’ rights, says he started getting numerous calls from BP whistleblowers asking for his help. …He said nearly a dozen past and present workers had reported that BP was “orchestrating inspection procedures” on Prudhoe Bay’s 1,300 miles of pipelines, a charge that would come back to haunt BP when severe corrosion in the pipelines was found this year. …BP denies orchestrating inspections and says the company did not get enough specifics from Mr Hamel to assess his charges adequately. …But Mr Hamel charges that Mr Coleman and BP lawyers flew to Washington to get him to reveal the whistleblowers – not investigate their allegations. Mr Hamel refused, noting the harassment claimed by Mr Brian following his statements in the press.

Part of William Bradley Bessire’s job as project co-ordinator at BP’s Texas City refinery was to put on a lavish “safety lunch” to reward the workers in his section for every week without an accident. … As the flames spread, hundreds of workers ran to the barbed wire fence surrounding the refinery trying to get out, but they could not climb over it without shredding their hands. … By then, 15 people were dead and 500 injured in and around the facility. … It was the worst US industrial accident in more than a decade. … instead of making the investments needed to improve safety, BP in 1999 ordered a 25 per cent cut in fixed costs. Federal investigators would later conclude that these budget cuts caused a progressive deterioration of safety … Ronnie Chappell, a BP spokesman, responded that the cuts were not a “directive” but rather a “challenge” to achieve the target without compromising safety or the long-term viability of the business unit. … an investigation by the Financial Times has shown BP allowed the refinery to deteriorate, in spite of all the red flags. Moreover, it was not the only BP operation in the US that was permitted to do so. … The Telos report contained something even more disturbing, however: evidence that the numbers of reported safety incidents were being kept low by pressure being brought to bear on the victims. … Telos quoted numerous workers at the plant complaining of pressure not to report injuries and safety violations. “I have been hurt and had management punish me and make a fool of me. Need I say more?” asked one worker cited in the report. A second said: “The employee is always at fault – and required to sign [a] statement that he committed an unsafe act.” “They made fun of me,” said a third. And a fourth: “Now when we get hurt, you drag yourself out the gate, if you’re able, and say it happened at home.”



Henry (not the famous one) 12.19.06 at 4:54 pm

Jordan Barab over at Confined Space has covered the Texas City disaster in detail. And the other issues raised by this report, such as blaming injured workers for management’s negligence.


Barry 12.20.06 at 7:02 am

Looks like the wingnutosphere is sleeping; it’s been hours, and no whacko has come by with the Chicago School slogan that the workers knew and accepted the risk.


JamesP 12.21.06 at 10:07 pm

Huh. I’ve just been reading a BP management manual – one of my students here in Beijing is a manager for them, and wanted me to help him translate it – and there’s a huge emphasis on reducing costs, ‘Value Improvement Projects,’ and boasting about reduced rates for projects. Not a great surprise.

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