The Travancore Cochin Chemicals Limited

Updating process safety culture: Lessons from BP Texas refinery incident

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Courtesy of Courtesy of The Travancore Cochin Chemicals Limited

“That which is everybody’s business is nobody’s business” - Izaak Walton

Chemical process plant safety and accident investigation has attained major strides in the past thirty years. Inquiry reports on catastrophic process plant accidents like Flixborough, Piper Alpha, Bhopal, Chernobyl revealed key areas where strengthening is needed to prevent major accidents in the industry . It is a commonplace knowledge today that a single incident of failure in the history of the installation can lead to loss of life to scores of people, extensive damage to property and render institutions wholly bankrupt. Thus today process safety management has developed into a highly developed engineering discipline and have extensively codified design, operation and maintenance practices with the result that industry operators are rendered capable of predicting and assessing the vulnerability and impact of probable hazardous situations that are likely to arise in their installations well in advance, proactively take steps to prevent them and also effectively mitigate any untoward incident - fire or toxic gas release - even if the likelihood of the occurrence of such instances are very remote. In the current industrial development scenario of our country this is particularly important as we are planning world class initiatives in the refining and petrochemical sector, chemical processing, and mineral processing and infrastructure development.

It is in this context that the findings and recommendations of the Baker Panel report are important to industry operators worldwide. The reports of the commissions enquiring into the fire occurred in the BP Texas City Refinery has brought out newer dimensions in the matter of corporate safety culture and safety management systems. Most often the causes of accident are believed to be technical shortcomings and human error. Very often enquiry reports heavily dwell upon improving systems available for the protection and stress on strengthening human resources to quickly respond to such situations. The BP refinery fire has unearthed the fact that even the latest generation of safety instrumentation, technical expertise and support may not help preventing the disaster in waiting. It has brought out the requirement of an intricate relationship between organizational safety culture and management of process safety systems. Systems alone are not enough, organizational culture for an all around concern for safety is essential.

The fire and explosion incident in the BP Texas city refinery occurred on March 23, 2005 in which 15 people were killed 180 injured. The catastrophic incident occurred in the isomerization (ISOM) unit of the refinery during the start up of the unit following a shutdown. Following the recommendations of the US Chemical Safety and Hazardous Investigation Board (CSB), the incident was enquired into by an independent panel headed by former US Secretary of State Mr. James Baker, III. The Baker Panel’s report is now available in the public domain and it has thoroughly reviewed the company’s safety culture, protection systems and employee involvement and commitment of top management.

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