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March 13, 2014
California working group releases final recommendations for refinery safety

After more than 18 months consulting with communities, workers, and industry representatives, California’s Interagency Working Group on Refinery Safety (Working Group) released a final report last month outlining recommendations to improve public and worker safety at and near the state’s oil refineries.

The Working Group, which included representatives from 13 state agencies, was established following an August 2012 incident at the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, California, in which a corroded pipe ruptured and began leaking flammable hydrocarbons that formed a vapor cloud and caught fire. Nineteen employees in the vicinity narrowly avoided serious injury or death, and 15,000 people in the surrounding community sought medical attention for respiratory problems. The resulting fines for violations of workplace safety standards were the largest in Cal/OSHA history.

In the wake of the incident, California Governor Jerry Brown convened the Working Group, which was tasked with examining ways to improve public and worker safety at California oil refineries.

The report released last month, titled “Improving Public and Worker Safety at Oil Refineries,” detailed recommendations for improving emergency response and preparedness, requiring inherently safer systems to prevent hazardous events, and improving community awareness and emergency alerts.

Specifically, the report recommends:

  • Coordinating regulatory activities to avoid duplication and increase effectiveness;
  • Establishing clear criteria for unified response during emergencies and aligning radio communications between industry firefighters and local first responders;
  • Requiring refineries to implement inherently safer systems to prevent emergencies and better protect workers and neighboring communities;
  • Strengthening enforcement capacity to ensure adequate oversight of refineries;
  • Assessing operational safety and organizational structures at refineries to reduce human factors such as lack of training, insufficient experience, or fatigue that can cause hazards;
  • Improving information and data flows from refineries to the public and state and local agencies; and
  • Providing greater community access to air quality monitoring information in and around refineries.

Of most immediate concern to refineries, the Working Group recommended requiring these facilities to implement inherently safer systems, perform periodic safety culture assessments, conduct damage mechanism hazard reviews, conduct root cause analysis after significant accidents or releases, explicitly account for human factors, and use structured methods to ensure the effectiveness of safeguards in process hazard analysis. The Working Group proposed incorporating these requirements into Cal/OSHA’s Process Safety Management standard and the California Accidental Release Program (CalARP).

To implement these recommendations, new refinery inspectors have been hired to ensure that facilities are complying with health and safety laws, and a new reporting system has been established to help improve oversight and provide more information to the public. In addition, Brown’s proposed budget for 2015 will increase resources for refinery safety and enforcement. An Interagency Refinery Task Force is overseeing progress on implementation of the Working Group’s recommendations.

Federal OSHA is also seeking to improve its chemical safety standards and is currently requesting comments on its Process Safety Management standard and enforcement policies, in addition to input on potential updates to standards on explosives and blasting agents, flammable liquids, and spray finishing. The request for information has a deadline of March 31, 2014, and was issued in response to President Obama’s Executive Order 13650, which seeks to improve chemical facility safety and security.

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