Independent safety investigation into BP’s Gulf disaster requested by Congress

On 8 July 2010 the United States government asked its Chemical Safety Board (CSB) to consider investigating the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.  It would be good news for safety and the environment for the CSB to take on this role.

Primarily, CSB is well placed to consider any issues concerning the safety management structure and culture of BP that may have contributed to the environmental disaster and the deaths of 11 workers on the rig.  As the CSB media statement outlines

“The CSB thoroughly investigated the BP Texas City refinery explosion of 2005 and issued a lengthy report and hour-long CSB Safety Video following our investigation, and as the letter from the committee chairmen states, we would be in a unique position to address numerous questions about BP’s safety culture and practices, and to answer the questions outlined in the House committee letter today.”

The letter from the chairman of the US Congress’ Committee on Energy and Commerce, Henry Waxman, has asked the CSB to consider the following questions

  • “Do the circumstances and events leading up to the Deepwater Horizon explosion reflect problems in BP’s corporate safety culture?
  • What role, if any, did cost-cutting and budgetary concerns play in BP’s decisions about well design and testing?
  • How did BP, Transocean, and other contractors apply “management of change” programs to assess the consequences of modifications to process, technology, and equipment on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig as well as organizational changes, including changes to personnel, training, and budget?
  • Did BP provide adequate oversight of the contractors working on the well?
  • Can the CSB draw any parallels between the root causes of the April 20 oil rig explosion and the causes of the 2005 BP Texas City refinery explosion?”

Significantly, the Committee has requested

“…that CSB assign the investigative team that led the BP
Texas City inquiry.”

(It may be in this context that Professor Andrew Hopkins could be involved , as many of the questions are reminiscent on Hopkins’ findings about BP’s safety culture, particularly on cost cutting, see below)

In some eyes the CSB’s involvement will further complicate the investigation into the continuing oil spill but there must be a suitable level of investigation into safety management and process safety, even though almost everyone’s attention has been dominated by the environmental impact of the incident.

The 7 June 2010 Propublica article into BP’s accident record reflects the regulatory response to the Gulf of Mexico spill. (The article has been reproduced elsewhere)  It provides an excellent history of the systemic failures in process safety and safety management by BP since the start of this decade but, principally, as they relate to environmental damage.  The deaths of workers is a secondary consideration.  This type of perspective is expected so early into an incident investigation and emphasises the important OHS investigative role commenced by the Congressional Committee’s letter to CSB.

The article also provides a further context to the idolatry afforded to Lord John Browne and his corporate approach by business and political leaders in England.

Over the last month or so SafetyAtWorkBlog has  reported on many surveys and statements about the attitudes of CEOs to safety.  Similarly there have been many blog articles and mentions in other media about the safety realities of many corporations that have CEOs who purport to be committed to safety and even “zero harm”.

The reality does not seem to be matching the rhetoric and it is this dichotomy that Professor Andrew Hopkins discussed in April 2010 at the Safety In Action conference where his keynote speech was about the Texas City refinery incident and the seeming inability of BP to learn from disasters.  Hopkins said that the operators of Texas City were ordered to cut costs by 25% and that this was impossible to achieve without reducing safety.  He said this about Lord John Browne and leadership:

“[John Browne] converted BP into the number one or two in the world after Exxon Mobil and he was regularly voted Britain’s most admired business leader and there was no doubt that he was a great leader in many respects.  But he did not lead in the area of safety and a senior executive who was closely associated with the CEO is reported to have said “John showed no interest in safety, no passion, no curiosity, no interest, in fact.””

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

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