The Florida legislature could soon be debating placing an offshore drilling ban on statewide ballots this November, in response to the unfolding oil spill crisis off the Louisiana coast. But aside from environmental and economic concerns, Floridians are also weighing the loss of 11 workers in the April 24 explosion on BP’s offshore rig Deepwater Horizon — the event that triggered the spill.

The loss of life was not an isolated incident. Oil and gas extraction has always been a dangerous occupation, and union and government reports document numerous incidents over the years, some of which resulted in fatalities and injuries at offshore oil rigs and refineries.

According to Eileen Angelico, the public affairs officer for the U.S. Minerals Managment Service (MMS), all production activity on offshore oil rigs, including accidents that involve personnel death or injury, are investigated by her agency. An MMS summary lists 192 oil spills of over 2,100 gallons from 1996 through 2009, accidents that are linked to 105 deaths and 1,838 injuries. The loss of life occurred on oil rigs operated by at least eight companies — including Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell Pipeline, Anadarko Petroleum, ATP Oil & Gas and BP.

The fatality summaries also published by the MMS document the circumstances surrounding a worker’s death on an offshore drilling rig. Between 2006 and 2009, there were 30 fatalities on offshore rigs. (Not all of these deaths were due to production-related activity.)

But dangerous oil and gas extraction working conditions are hardly confined to offshore rigs. In 2005, 15 workers died and 170 were injured due to an explosion at BP’s refinery in Texas City, Texas. As a result of the incident an independent panel was created to review BP’s corporate safety culture.

The 11-member panel included ex-Secretary of State James Baker III, retired Adm. Frank L Bowman and, till 2008, the chief executive officer of the Nuclear Energy Institute, a U.S. nuclear lobbying group, as well as Glenn Erwin, from United Steelworkers, credited with “extensive experience in accident investigation in the petrochemical industry.”

The panel focused on “process safety” at the five BP refineries located in the U.S. In the summary of its report published in 2007 the panel found that “BP has not provided effective process safety leadership and has not adequately established process safety as a core value across all its five U.S. refineries.”

When asked if BP had complied with the Baker panel recommendations, BP press officer Robert Wine writes: “BP has worked diligently since the accident in March 2005 to address safety concerns at the Texas City site. BP has spent more than $1 billion at Texas City to address safety concerns since 2005. We continue to work cooperatively with OSHA [the Occupational Safety & Health Administration] to resolve these matters.”

But in October 2009 OSHA sent a Citation and Notification of Penalty to BP North America for violations at the Texas City refinery. OSHA penalized BP for a host of “willful” violations in the areas of equipment deficiency (e.g. settings on pressure relief valves that did not comply with “accepted good engineering practices”) and process safety (e.g. not posting written instructions on proper safety measures).

The USW cites Department of Energy information in its weekly updates about “process safety upsets” at U.S. refineries. The data from September 2009 shows that equipment breakdown, mechanical failure, power failure and emissions problems (leaks) played a role in incidents that stopped production and injured workers at Valero, Tesoro, ExxonMobil and BP refineries.

Kim Nibarger — a USW health and safety specialist with 17 years experience as a refinery worker — emphasizes the differences between oil drilling and refinery processes, but points out “that drilling and refineries deal with pressures and flows, hydrocarbons and water that require specialized equipment. I’d say there are instances where oil drilling would benefit from process safety management. It’s too easy to blame human error.”

Nibarger adds, “OSHA national inspection programs on refineries show that there’s a lack of mechanical integrity, equipment maintenance, process hazard analysis and process safety information.”

Photo courtesy flickr.com/photos/jurvetson

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