US oil refineries ‘cut corners’ in safety, report claims

Aug. 23, 2013

Oil refineries in the United States are far more dangerous than those in the European Union, with incidents occurring at least once a week, a report commissioned by California’s Interagency Task Force on Refinery Safety claims.

Oil refineries in the United States are far more dangerous than those in the European Union, with incidents occurring at least once a week, a report commissioned by California's Interagency Task Force on Refinery Safety (TFRS) claims.

The "Refinery Safety in California" report was prepared by Dr. Michael Wilson, director of the University of California's Labor Occupational Health Program. It stated that in U.S. oil refineries production is being favored at the expense of safety. Wilson quoted statistics from Swiss Re, a leading international reinsurer, suggesting that financial losses incurred in refinery incidents in the United States were three times larger than similar occurrences in Europe in 2006 and the gap has widened since then.

There are numerous reasons behind this difference, the report pointed out, citing cutting corners in safety, overlooking maintenance issues to reduce costs, self-regulated inspections and insufficient staff as key factors.

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There is a common culture of "pushing the operator envelope," agreed Kim Nibarger, safety specialist for United Steelworkers. Improvements in repair technology have allowed refineries to clamp over holes in pipes, instead of replacing them. Several refineries have up to 300 clamps of various sizes, with some of them as big as a Volkswagen, Nibarger added.

There is a way out, Wilson noted in his report, and this is regulatory change on all levels. Transparency and accountability should be the emphasis of those reforms, as well as improvements in regulatory oversight and prevention, he added.

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