British Petroleum (BP) fired its chief executive, Lord Browne of Madingley, on Jan 13 this year. Three days later, former United States secretary of state James Baker released a report on BP’s safety record and at least one of the reasons for Lord Browne’s involuntary departure from the company was clear. It concluded that BP had a “corporate blind spot” when it came to safety. For once, an accident inquiry looked beyond human error at the operational level and targeted executive decision making.
The inquiry panel led by the former secretary Baker can anticipate applause from the ergonomics community. Human factors experts regard scrutiny of the corporate culture and system as a whole as an essential part of an accident inquiry, yet investigators often don’t look higher for mistakes than individual operators.
According to The Washington Post on Jan 13, the debacles that tarnished the peer’s reputation included a refinery explosion in Texas, leaky Alaska pipelines that shut down the biggest US oil field, costly delays in a big Gulf of Mexico production platform and a handful of dubious business practices.
The Texas fatalities occurred on 23 March, 2005, after gas vapors ignited at BP’s southernmost US refinery and caused an explosion that ripped through employee accommodation on the site. Fifteen people died and more than 170 were injured, making it the worst industrial accident in the United States for more than a decade.
Some blame Browne for trying to trim costs in assets acquired with the mergers. The Alaska pipelines hadn’t been cleaned for 14 years, and the Texas City refinery, inherited from Amoco, had a patchy safety record.
Former secretary Baker and members of the panel of investigators interviewed more than 700 BP employees, from hourly refinery workers right up to Lord Browne, and conducted public meetings in the communities where the company is a big employer.
Their 350-page analysis, “The Report of the BP U.S. Refineries Safety Panel Review,” detailed safety failings at the company’s five US refineries, from employees too scared to report accidents to an executive class that failed to implement vital safety procedures. The theme of the report is that while BP concentrated on reducing personal injuries at its facilities, it neglected measures designed to enhance the operational safety of the plants themselves. Executives failed to instill culture where this “process safety” was paramount, it said.
The report noted that employees were often poorly trained in the safety procedures required to prevent major incidents, while managers were sometimes too focused on increasing production to meet profits expectations.
Budget cutting was also an issue. “If a refinery is under-resourced, maintenance may be deferred, inspections and testing may fall behind, old and obsolete equipment may not be replaced, and process risks will inevitably increase,” the report said. “The Panel does not believe that BP has always ensured that the resources required for strong process safety performance at its U.S. refineries were identified and provided.”
The company’s US $22 billion in profits in 2006 buttresses the company against significant pain from government fines and lawsuits won by the families of employees killed in the refinery explosion and the injured survivors. The question is whether the company sees any incentive to make the changes recommended by the Baker panel.
Sources: Washington Post; “The Report of the BP U.S. Refineries Safety Panel Review”