From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Safety and the Energy Industry – Continents Apart?

Fifteen oil refinery workers died in an accident at the BP North America oil refinery plant in Texas in 2005 and 12 coal miners died in an explosion at the Sago Mine in West Virginia’s Appalachian coal country at the start of 2006. Both accidents raised a dust, but it is settling rapidly. Energy industry accidents are too commonplace around the world to keep outrage alive for long, and the number of United States workers who perish in them pales against the toll in many other countries.

Shortly after the Sago accident the National Mining Association (NMA), an industry group, drew on statistical comparisons to defend the US safety record. A spokesman insisted in an interview with BBC television that the mining industry is one of the safest in the United States and compared it to other sectors to make his point.

He may be right, but the BP and Sago accidents suggest complacency is illadvised. The relatively low US numbers reflect the degree of mechanization in coal mines and the country’s move to other sources of energy. They say less about safety precautions or good management.

The comparisons mask the near absence of a safety culture at some energy production facilities in the United States. BP and the International Coal Group, which operates the Sago Mine, have been painted as companies that would rather blame workers and human error and seek protection from a government friendly to their interests than take responsibility for reducing fatalities and injuries. Rather than rectifying dangerous situations, they are known to brush off safety citations by paying fines that can be written off as the cost of doing business. Preliminary investigations also underline their failures to implement ergonomic practices in areas that respond well to interventions. The abundance of ergonomics know-how at their disposal makes the failure all the more telling.

A reason for lingering interest is that two high-level investigations are under way. BP complied with a demand by the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) for an outside investigation, announcing in October the names of experts who will probe the explosion and issue recommendations in late 2006. The results of an outside investigation of the Sago operation are due by July 1.

Revisiting Disasters

The parade of energy industry disasters inside and outside the United States suggests ergonomic design and accident prevention has not been allowed to take root where it is needed most.

The explosion on March 23, 2005, at BP’s Texas City refinery injured some 170 in addition to the 15 fatalities. It has been described as the worst United States refinery accident in recent memory, but it has rivals. Reports from the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) of the US Department of Labor and articles from Occupational Hazards and The Houston Chronicle suggest US refinery accidents are commonplace.

Outside the country notable accidents include explosions in 2001 on the world’s biggest offshore oil platform, owned by Brazil’s Petrobras, which killed 10 workers. The world’s worst oil rig disaster happened in 1988. Occidental Petroleum’s Piper Alpha North Sea rig exploded after a gas leak, killing 167 workers.

The hazards of coal mining are even greater.

Seventy-eight miners died in 1969 explosion at a mine in the same county as the Sago operation. And in 1907 an explosion at the Monongah Mine in West Virginia killed 362 miners. Other mining states register similar numbers. Nationwide, fewer than 100 coal miners die each year in accidents.

In many parts of the world the figures are staggering. Official Chinese sources say some 7,000 miners die each year, but Radio Free Asia’s Mandarin Service reports that the real figure is closer to 20,000. China produced 35 percent of the world’s coal last year, but reported 80 percent of the total deaths in coal mine accidents, according to China’s State Administration of Work Safety.

In some developing countries, particularly China and India, the coal mining industry is growing apace with breakneck industrialization. Coal miners are employed in vast numbers because there is little or no mechanization. The comparatively insignificant number of coal miners in the United States suggests the need to look at percentages before applauding the relatively low US numbers.

West Virginia tells the story for the whole country. The number of mining operations has shrunk by nearly half since 1990

This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2006-01-18.