I’m Sorry! I Was Wrong.

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As it turns out I owe you all an apology.  In a previous blog about the Chevron Refinery explosion in Richmond, California which is being covered so well by the SF Chronicle’s, Jaxon Van Derbeken,  I had mentioned that Cal-OSHA was on top of things and how proud I was of how they believed their rules as well as themselves were better than U.S. Government regulations, but as it now turns out, I was wrong.  However the good news is someone in Sacramento is pushing for an audit of Cal-OSHA, and taking on the issue of workers safety instead of their own selfish needs.  State Senator Mark Leno, D-SF and chair of the Senates Budget Committee has obviously been reading and listening by expressing his concerns that the agency has access to all resources available to ensure workplace safety in the state of California.

As reported in the S.F. Chronicle, Sept 8, 2012 by J. Van Derbeken, Cal-OSHA had conducted 3 planned inspections of the Chevron Richmond refinery since 2006 and found no workplace safety violations.  However the inspections only averaged 50 man hours as compared to the 1000 man hours the U.S. inspectors are averaging in their nationwide inspection program of refineries.  Later in the Chronicle article Cal-OSHA defended themselves by saying, “No one has died in a refinery accident in California since 1999.”  He’s right, but as the article points out there was another fire at the same Chevron refinery in 2007 where an employee was badly burned and they were only fined  $185.00 by Cal-OSHA.  I’m not exactly happy knowing that they rate their performance on how many people have or not have died.  You need to account for injuries and near misses which are all indicators on how safety is measured at most places, well, except for the State of California.

So now you know why State Senator Mark Leno has concerns but the problem goes deeper in my opinion.  Cal-OSHA has a new boss, Ellen Widess who was appointed to the job in April of 2011.  She has an impressive resume and spent the last 10 years as a Program Officer for the Rosenberg Foundation.  This experience makes her a great administrator or glorified bean counter if you will, of an agency who’s looking to cut expenses and try to work within the constraints of the state budget.  However,  this does not make for a great enforcer.  She also has skills on developing policy and raising funds but greatly lacks the knowledge or experience of heavy industry.  So as an appointee of Governor Brown, based on her past experiences and positions, she was picked to use those talents to find ways to help reduce the budget and curb expenses even if that meant the quickest ways to do an inspection instead of the best ways to do inspections.  Unfortunately when it comes to politics you don’t always get the right person for the job since the appointer usually owes someone or the individual a favor.

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Look, most of you all know the routine when it comes to a planned visit by a regulating agency.  I’ve been in meetings where upper management discuss the areas they want the inspector to avoid, so as not to create a reason for a deeper look by the inspector.  So they plan their “walk” and guide the inspector on their pre-planned route.  An inexperienced inspector usually goes along with the guided tour and never ever sees the worst areas of the plant.  In fact, at one company we were having issues on the dust collector for a particular piece of equipment and even though the company knew they were over the limit on dust released into the atmosphere, they kept running it, even over our EH&S manager’s vehement objections, (who later resigned) but they needed production of that specific product for orders.  When the inspector showed up they just lied and told him it wasn’t running and was down for repairs.  He took their word for it and just scheduled a later appointment for inspection.  What would have been nice is if he said, well, can I take a look and see how you’re doing?  But he didn’t.

When you put constraints on inspectors like the amount of time per inspection just to save a few dollars you reduce the amount of area within a large plant they can cover and how much equipment they can examine while it’s in operation.  Without the proper experience it is also possible that critical inspection points may have been removed from the checklist to help expedite the inspections as well.  The big disconnect I see is a leader lacking in ground tactics dealing with savoy plant operators who guide the inspectors while Widess is trying to reduce the budget without looking at what the agency needs to do to be effective.  Safety is important, but at what cost?

I would also like to point out another area of concern.  Chevron contributes money to several politicians in California and while it’s legal you have to wonder how unbiased the 6 Republican, 4 Democrat State Senators and the 8 Republican and 2 Democrat State Assembly members are towards work place safety.  These individuals are important chairpersons that have collected $330,450 over the last four years and this is not including the U.S. Senators and Congressmen that have been given donations as well.

When it comes to ensuring work place safety at your facility, whether it is a large oil refinery or a small warehouse can you put a price tag on a human life?  When you smile at your boss and tell him, I saved X amount by keeping inspections to an average of 50 hours or less and later find out you missed a critical point will I am sorry be enough?  The bottom line is don’t count on the politicians to keep you safe since 80% of the time they’re looking out for their own interest or that of special interest for lobbyist and not yours.  It’s up to every Supervisor, Manager and Employee to be ever vigilant and hold their company accountable and to make sure everyone goes home in one piece.  Then you won’t have to say, I’m sorry, I was wrong.

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