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BP slammed for poor leadership on safety

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BP slammed for poor leadership on safety

HOUSTON—Workplace safety professionals say a safety review panel's report issued last week that criticized BP P.L.C. management's commitment to process safety should help focus more attention on the importance of management in the creation of a safety culture.

The panel, headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, was created in 2005 as a result of an explosion and fire that killed 15 workers at BP's Texas City, Texas, refinery. BP has set aside $1.6 billion to compensate victims of the explosion.

BP said last week it will implement the recommendations made by the panel as part of the company's continuing effort to improve its safety culture and to strengthen and standardize process safety management at BP's five U.S. refineries.

The Baker panel focused on process safety rather than personal safety issues. Personal safety issues--such as slips and falls--usually affect one person. But, as the panel noted in its report, process safety issues go much further.

"Process safety hazards can give rise to major accidents involving the release of potentially dangerous materials, the release of energy (such as fires and explosions), or both," the report said. "Process safety incidents can have catastrophic effects and can result in multiple injuries and fatalities, as well as substantial economic, property and environmental damage."

The panel held that "it is imperative that BP leadership set the process safety 'tone at the top' of the organization and establish appropriate expectations regarding process safety performance." It also said that BP "has not provided effective leadership in making certain its management and U.S. refining workforce understand what is expected of them regarding process safety performance."

It addition to calling on management to provide more process safety leadership, the panel, among other things, called for an integrated and comprehensive process safety management system and development of a process safety culture. The Baker panel also urged BP to "clearly define expectations and strengthen accountability for process safety performance at all levels in executive management and in the (oil) refining managerial and supervisory reporting line."

In a statement accompanying the release of the report, BP said it "already has taken a number of actions which align with the recommendations" of the panel "and will, after a more thorough review, develop plans for additional action" at its U.S. refineries and elsewhere.

'Deficiencies' abound

The Baker panel said that while the report dealt with BP, "we intend it for a broader audience. We are under no illusion that deficiencies in process safety culture, management or corporate oversight are limited to BP."

Workplace safety experts said the emphasis on management commitment cannot be stressed too strongly.

"Management commitment is absolutely the most critical element in driving a safety culture," said Sam Gualardo, president of National Safety Consultants in Salix, Pa., and a former president of the Des Plaines, Ill.-based American Society of Safety Engineers.

"Employees don't come to work with the intention of getting hurt or killed," Mr. Gualardo said. "The bottom line is that management, particularly senior management, sets the tone in the organization's response to safety issues."

"You've got to create these management systems and processes to exercise some control over those operational exposures," said Jim Smith, Southeast regional risk control manager for Arthur J. Gallagher Co. of Florida, in West Palm Beach, and an ASSE vp. "Generally, when you're having a lot of claims, management has some control or lack of control over those processes. That's why it's critical for management to commit to developing these systems and processes to integrate into these business practices."

"I think the report is going to contribute to more proactive occupational health and safety processes," said Darryl Hill, ABB Inc.'s safety and health officer for North America, in Auburn Hills, Mich., and an ASSE vp.

Management support for safety efforts isn't enough, said Mr. Hill. "They also should demonstrate that they are actively engaged--that's the key word--in the process."

Mr. Hill said active management engagement in ABB's safety process has led to improvement in the company's safety performance. "Unless the senior leadership team is actively engaged in driving the process through all levels of the organization, it's going to be difficult to have exemplary safety performance."

"I really think the problem is bigger than any particular commission," said Mr. Gualardo. "We can establish commissions to look at scenarios after the fact, look at incidents after the fact, but my concern is that a commission really doesn't have the weight necessary to change the cultural issues that affect management decision-making. As long as an organization focuses on profits and puts those profits ahead of safety within the workplace, we're going to face similar circumstances."