Putting Employee Safety First

Firms that don't begin enhancing their safety procedures risk having compliance forced upon them.

Safety directors at oil refineries today are required to keep up to date with an ever-increasing list of regulations from a number of sources. State and federal regulations govern everything from the maintenance of equipment to training of operators, and new regulations are proposed continuously. As overwhelming as these regulations may seem, the cost of lapses in compliance with them is steep--as any company that has experienced a fire, explosion, or other accident knows.

The pressure on companies continues to increase. Just recently, for example:

• Carolyn W. Merritt, then-chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, called on the House Committee on Education and Labor to increase OSHA's oversight of the oil refining industry to prevent accidents similar to the one that occurred at the British Petroleum refinery in Texas City, Texas, in 2005.

• OSHA reaffirmed its commitment to inspecting every refinery under its jurisdiction.

• The American Petroleum Institute reaffirmed its Recommended Practice for Drilling and Well Servicing Operations Involving Hydrogen Sulfide. This 49-page document contains recommendation for the storage of breathing equipment, detecting/monitoring levels of hydrogen sulfide during well drilling and servicing, and minimum standards for safety training of personnel.

Responsible companies are not waiting for these new regulations to develop the safety processes and procedures necessary to ensure compliance. These initiatives serve to prioritize safety across a company, centralize safety functions, and recruit and retain qualified personnel; they can become the pillars of a successful safety program.

Making Safety a Priority
Those firms that don't begin enhancing their safety procedures risk having compliance forced upon them. Management of top oil companies must send clear signals to their employees and vendors that adherence to safety standards is a company priority. Waiting until an inspector is on site or simply reacting to an incident before reviewing safety processes and procedures sends the wrong message to a company's workforce and creates a command climate conducive to safety mishaps. A culture where safety drills are common and all employees and contractors receive regular reminders of their roles in maintaining an accident-free work area helps guarantee the success of a safety program.

More companies, including those in the oil and gas business, are choosing to participate in OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program (VPP). Admittance to the program, which is granted after an extensive application process, recognizes a company's commitment to a high level of safety standards. To achieve "Star Site" designation, a company must demonstrate injury or illness rates at or below the national average for its industry. At this writing, 23 out of 149 refineries in the country have this designation.

The number of OSHA VPP participants is anticipated to grow as an increasing number of oil companies develop or enhance their safety programs. More companies are raising the awareness of their employees and the communities surrounding their refineries as to the safety issues affecting the industry and the measures in place to minimize worker and community risk.

Centralizing the Safety Function
Safety is an enterprise-wide responsibility incorporating operations personnel, as well as professionals with experience in human resources, legal, and communications. With the increasing complexity of safety regulations, more companies are centralizing responsibility for safety compliance in one department, with a corporate safety officer accountable for coordinating the efforts of the whole company.

This consolidation enables companies to manage their initiatives efficiently. By reviewing all of the contracts with vendors for equipment purchase and maintenance, for example, a corporate safety officer may be able to consolidate the firm's outsourcing. This will help to manage costs, eliminate redundancies, and maintain consistent standards. Having the contracting process managed by a professional familiar with both the company and the regulations will reduce errors in purchasing and ensure that all equipment meets current guidelines.

Having a central office to manage safety issues also helps the company maintain consistent standards. By liaising with the local fire department, for example, a safety officer can maintain a master schedule of fire drills at a particular location. He can also oversee the installation and maintenance of all fire equipment and work with state fire marshals to keep the company's equipment and procedures up to date.

Recruiting and retaining enough qualified personnel is critical to any company’s overall safety program. Cataloging, checking, and storing safety equipment is a full-time job for someone familiar with a firm's operations and the guidelines for each piece of equipment. A standard oil refinery plant can have a safety program involving hundreds of detection and respiratory devices, and it is essential that companies have professionals certified and cross-trained on multiple pieces of equipment.

Recent incidents have made the oil industry aware that more needs to be done to ensure the safety of its employees and those who live in surrounding communities. Working together with federal agencies and regulators, the industry is stepping up to the plate. By installing the latest safety equipment and implementing the necessary procedures--and also ensuring that enough qualified personnel are there to maintain the equipment--the industry is affirming its commitment to safety.

Paul Tyree is vice president, domestic sales of Total Safety U.S., Inc., of Houston, Texas. It is a leading provider of mission-critical safety services and equipment to the refining, petrochemical, and upstream markets from more than 40 locations worldwide.

This article originally appeared in the October 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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