Refinery Safety, Health: How Proactive is Enough?

By Gregory N. Dale | July 11, 2013

Although accidents can and, unfortunately, do happen, even in very safety-compliant and well-run facilities, refineries can and should consider taking proactive steps to toward a safe work environment. Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards present the minimum acceptable safety requirements.  Further, some areas of facility safety may not be regulated by an applicable OSHA standard. For such areas, OSHA’s general duty clause requires that employers furnish employment and a place of employment free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees. 

It’s important to have effective and proactive safety programs go beyond OSHA’s minimum requirements because the driving force behind such programs is not merely OSHA compliance. It is the overriding interest in preserving life and health. Some may feel avoiding accidents in the workplace requires a crystal ball of some sort, but the recognition of certain conditions may prevent safety incidents. 

Here are some guidelines in reviewing any facility's overall safety and health compliance.

Equipment and Tooling Inspections: Equipment, no matter how well-built, will eventually succumb to age, weather, environmental conditions and the stresses placed upon it in the process. Inspections and/or audits are particularly important for equipment containing hazardous materials or stored energy. The older the equipment, the more it needs regular checks to confirm it is in safe condition. Do you have a regular, documented and effective audit and review process for equipment and tooling?

Employee Training: Even well-trained workers can forget specific training or choose not to follow training. A worker may follow safety training, such as wearing protective equipment, without fail for years and the one time he or she decides not to could be the moment something happens. Accordingly, retraining ought to regularly occur, especially immediately before particularly busy periods and upcycles. Do you have a training program that is documented and reinforced regularly with retraining?

Training Enforcement: Safety enforcement is never a popular topic because it may involve disciplinary processes. Nonetheless, an employer can have great training and superb equipment, but still fall short of an effective safety program if supervisors are not vigilant in catching and promptly correcting actions that are inconsistent with OSHA requirements and safety principles. OSHA considers proper enforcement to be an essential element of an effective safety program. Are your supervisors appropriately enforcing your safety program and documenting enforcement? 

New Process/New Equipment: Implementation of new processes and/or equipment should include thorough training, including coverage of operators' and owners' manuals. More heavily supervised early runs are needed during the first few weeks using the new equipment or process.

Supervisory Substantive Knowledge: So often, reams of training materials and instruction are provided to operators, but supervisors have not received such updated training on processes, hazards, safety precautions, etc. These supervisors will be the first persons to be questioned following any incident. Do they have current, relevant training and knowledge of safety issues so they can promptly recognize safety hazards and take remedial action? Are supervisors knowledgeable about OSHA standards applicable to their area of responsibility? Is their training documented?

Supervisory Continuous Jobsite and Operations Knowledge: Safety issues can arise in the blink of an eye. In order to catch problems before health and safety are at risk, supervisors must reliably and regularly review site operations. Are supervisors regularly and reliably in the field to detect potential safety risks or issues?

Contractors/Visitors: Clear communication about jobsite hazards and each employer's safety processes are critical before business visitors or contractors arrive on-site. Many OSHA standards explicitly require such advance communications and information sharing. Are those communications being documented?

Delayed Safety Is Poor Safety: Even seemingly minor issues may sometimes be harbingers of serious safety hazards. Should an incident occur, delays in response to previously observed safety issues will invariably be reviewed in ensuing investigations. Are there internal audit records that document unresolved safety issues? 

Workforce Diversity: Workforces in the U.S. increasingly include workers from many cultures and regions who do not yet have full facility with English language terms. OSHA has recognized this issue and has alerted employers of the need to communicate safety training and materials in a manner fully understood by all workers. This may mean that documentation must be offered in multiple languages.

Consideration of these points will assist employers as they work to maintain safe and healthy worksites.

Author: Gregory N. Dale
Partner, Faegre Baker Daniels LLP