CSB Renews Push for Process Safety Focus

The safety board's hearing in Houston highlighted similarities between the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and the 2005 Texas City refinery disaster and reminded the offshore industry that process safety is more important than tracking injury statistics.

The Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board's hearing in Houston this week focused attention on the role of potential indicators in process safety as a means for offshore operators to constantly assess the health of their safety management systems. This echoed CSB's first recommendation in its report on the March 2005 explosion at BP's Texas City, Texas, refinery, and the board's presentations said it is equally relevant in understanding another multi-fatality incident, the April 2010 well blowout and explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Potential indicators such as timely checks on safety critical equipment and response to well control events may be precursors to these events, board officials said.

A similar recommendation for greater focus on overall process safety leadership by industry also was a prime finding from the long government investigation of the December 2005 massive explosion and fire that destroyed the Buncefield fuel storage depot in southeast England, causing an estimated $1.5 billion in damage. No one died in that incident, however.

What caused the Buncefield disaster was overfilling of a storage tank when automatic shutoff equipment failed to operate. Leaking fuel produced a large vapor cloud that soon ignited.

"A number of past CSB investigations have found companies focusing on personal injury rates while virtually overlooking looming process safety issues –- like the effectiveness of barriers against hazardous releases, automatic shutoff system failures, activation of pressure relief devices, and loss of containment of liquids and gases. Furthermore, we have found failures by companies to implement their own recommendations from previous accidents involving, for example, leaks of flammable materials," CSB Chairperson Dr. Rafael Moure-Eraso said July 23 at the Houston hearing. The board said its investigation of the Deepwater Horizon disaster found that BP and its contracted drilling rig operator, Transocean, focused on personal safety issues such as injury rates rather than broader safety issues involving the process of drilling for oil using a complex rig.

"The emphasis on personal injury and lost work-time data obscures the bigger picture: that companies need to develop indicators that give them realistic information about their potential for catastrophic accidents," added CSB Investigator Cheryl MacKenzie. "How safety is measured and managed is at the very core of accident prevention. If companies are not measuring safety performance effectively and using those data to continuously improve, they will likely be left in the dark about their safety risks."

The board said BP officials recently informed CSB investigators that they are working to develop a more comprehensive offshore indicators program using leading and lagging metrics to help drive performance improvements.

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