Changing political support of workplace safety in the US

Occupational health and safety used to be above political argy-bargy.  It was accepted that the safety of workers was a core importance to the management of any business.  Often it operated as a subset of industrial relations and popped its head up occasionally, usually when new of revised legislation was due.  Rarely has workplace safety been a catalyst for political controversy.

In the United States, the last political fight was over the ergonomics  rule under a Republican Bush presidency in 2001.  According to one media report:

“The president has directed Labor Secretary Elaine Chao to find a less expensive way to protect worker health.” Continue reading “Changing political support of workplace safety in the US”

Gas leaks at Esso’s Longford plant

WorkSafe Victoria is investigating two gas leaks that occurred on 6 November 2009 at the Longford gas plant owned by Esso.  This plant was subject to a fatal explosion in 1998 and was recently written about on SafetyAtWorkBlog.

According to an ABC news report on 11 November 2009, repairing one leak led to a consequent leak and a “plant operator suffered minor injuries when he fell during the incident.”

A WorkSafe Victoria spokesperson told SafetyAtWorkBlog that inspectors have been on site for several days, the area of the incident is still not operational and that any restitution work in the area will need WorkSafe’s approval.

Kevin Jones

What Trevor Keltz gets right

Madonna has just released another greatest hits CD.  Trevor Kletz has done similar in releasing the fifth edition of “What Went Wrong?” He admits that almost all of the content has appeared elsewhere.  It’s been almost 20 years since I had to read Kletz’s books and articles as part of working in a Major Hazards Branch of an OHS regulator in Australia.  Not being an engineer, the books informed me but were a chore.  This is not the case with the last edition.

Kletz has two parts to the book.  The first is a collection of short case notes recording as he says

“…the immediate technical causes of the accidents and the changes in design and methods of working needed to prevent them from happening again”.

The second discusses the weaknesses of management systems.  In short, the book reflects the expanding nature of safety management over the last forty years.  Kletz may be from the Olde School of safety engineers (he is 87 years old) but often one needs a fresh perspective on a profession and coming from a person with such extensive experience, Kletz is worth listening to.  Thankfully, he does not sound like a grumpy old man.

Kletz notes that process industry lessons seem to fade after a few years.  In my opinion this may be an effect of the transience of modern careers where corporate memory is often fragmented.  It may also be due to the shipping of manufacturing and process industries off-shore and the establishment of large complexes in countries with different (lax) safety requirements.  It may also be due to a corporate performance regime where maintenance is not valued or understood as that supports long term thinking rather than quite returns on investment.

Regardless of the cause, the short-term memory makes the need for such books as this as more important than never.

In anticipation of his look at management systems he notes in his preface, that management systems need maintaining and, more importantly, reading.  In some circumstances, too much faith is placed in the system (I would refer to the Esso Longford explosion as an example).  Kletz says all systems have limitations.

“All they can do is make the most of people’s knowledge and experience by applying them in a systematic way.  If people lack knowledge and experience, the systems are empty shells.”

What Kletz does not write about is human error because, as he says, “all accidents are due to human error”.  He avoids making the weak logic jump that the behaviouralists make where, “if all accidents are due to human error then fix the human and you fix the hazard”.  Kletz devotes a whole chapter to his classification of human errors as

  • Mistakes;
  • Violations or noncompliance;
  • Mismatches;
  • Slips and lapses of attention.

This edition of “What Went Wrong?” provides a baseline for the safety concepts we have come to accept but also a critical eye on safety and manufacturing management shortcomings.  The style is very easy to read although occasionally repetitive.  Thankfully the process technicalities are avoided unless they relate to the technical point Kletz is making.  I found part B hugely useful but it is recommended for all safety professionals.

Kevin Jones

Varanus Island is back to normal

According to various Australian media reports, the natural gas plant at Varanus Island in Western Australia is now back to full capacity following the major pipeline explosion in 2008.

The government has estimated that the explosion blasted $A2 billion from the state economy and will be pursuing the pipeline’s owner, Apache Energy, through the courts.

The government says the pipeline was inadequately maintained and corrosion led to the failure of the pipe.

Apache has already been in the courts seeking an injunction to stop the Western Australian Mines & Petroleum Minister, Norman Moore, from seeing a “a federal-state government report into alleged regulatory lapses that may have contributed to the Varanus Island blast”.

Apache’s move is peculiar but the WA government has become more involved in the investigation of this explosion than others and the company has not been happy with the investigation process for some time.

Kevin Jones

John Bresland’s latest safety video

SafetyAtWorkBlog has previously referred to safety videos produced by the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB).  The latest safety message from Chairman John Bresland relates to combustible dust explosion risks, a hazard that exists around the world and one that has been mentioned in this blog.

A curious element in this very good video is that he is lobbying the “incoming leadership at OSHA” to act on the CSB’s combustible gas recommendations.  John’s video was released on 4 February 2009.  The confirmation of a new Labor Secretary is still to occur and the latest nominee, Hilda Solis, has become embroiled in a taxation “scandal” relating to her husband’s auto repair business.

Bresland’s messages are always of good general safety relevance, a major reason why they are embedded in SafetyAtWorkBlog, but the latest one has some peculiar tones given the current US political circumstances.  In Australia, we rarely have Chairman or CEOs of government agencies making such statements. It is indeed curious.

Kevin Jones

Longford explosion anniversary, Andrew Hopkins and a new book

October 2008 was the tenth anniversary of the explosion at Longford gas plant in Australia that resulted in many injuries, two fatalities and almost two weeks of severely interrupted gas supply to the State of Victoria.

The Longford explosion at an Exxon-Mobil site resulted in a Royal Commission, an OHS prosecution and a record fine.  Recently it was often invoked in comparison to the Varanus Island pipeline explosion in Western Australia.

Professor Andrew Hopkins, sociologist with the Australian National University, was studying safety management systems well before the Esso Longford explosion but it was that major disaster that added international prominence, and a substantial extra workload, to Andrew.  Other than domestic acclaim, in July 2008, the European Process Safety Centre declared Andrew winner of the EPSC Award for 2008.  He is the first person outside of Europe to win this award.  It is believed that Andrew was formally presented with the award at the EPSC conference earlier this month.

Andrew has a refreshing perspective on safety management systems, partly because he has brought a sociologist’s eye to management decisions; his vision is not clouded by the OHS baggage through which many other analysts struggle.

Andrew’s next book due out this month through CCH Australia is Failure to Learn The BP Texas City refinery disaster and could have him travelling frequently the United States to offer his wisdom.

SafetyAtWorkBlog is working on a new interview with Andrew when he returns to Australia but in the meantime, a 2000 interview with Andrew is available as a page on this blog.  The interview was conducted at a book launch in September 2000 for Lessons From Longford.

Professor Andrew Hopkins (right) receiving the award from Christian Jochum, Director of the European Process Safety Centre
Professor Andrew Hopkins (right) receiving the award from Christian Jochum, Director of the European Process Safety Centre