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American Safety Experts Look to Europe for Ways to Improve Oil Refinery Safety

In the wake of several oil refinery fires and explosions, President Obama issued an executive order to improve chemical facility safety. Some safety experts are looking to European oil refineries as a model of how to improve American refinery safety.

The European Difference

European oil refineries boast a much better safety record than refineries in America. Part of the reason for this was the European Union’s adoption of the Seveso Directive in 1982. This directive is a safety measure which requires refineries and other companies which produce or use chemicals to create comprehensive safety plans before the refinery becomes operational. Safety is a prerequisite to production, rather than an afterthought. This directive was expanded in 1996, and will expand even further in 2015.

Additionally, much of Europe has a favorable view of unions and socialized labor. As a result, workers and unions have a stronger voice in the refinery’s safety policies and procedures. The political systems of Europe also allows for less lobbying of politicians, which means that expensive safety measures don’t get cut as a result of political pressure.

As a result of this attitude toward safety, large European refineries have better safety records and statistically fewer accidents than refineries in the United States. The U.S. also posts financial losses that are three times higher than those in Europe.

Cost Concerns are Supreme in America

In contrast to European refineries, which are built from a safety-first perspective, many U.S. companies and facilities are built and managed with costs in mind. Safety measures can be expensive and time consuming, and are often not implemented until a spill or other disaster forces changes.

Bob Landry, spokesman of the United Steelworkers Local 13-12 told the Louisiana Weekly that U.S. refineries rely too much on temporary fixes, and focus on finding existing hazards rather than enacting proactive or preemptive safety measures. Landry also believes that an influx of contract, or temporary workers negatively affect safety, because these workers are less concerned with the long-term safety risks associated with permanent oil refinery positions.

Do Current Safety Regulations Do Enough?

Federal agencies are taking note of Europe’s safety record. Last year, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board recommended that California adopt a “safety case” system similar to the ones in place in the U.K., Norway, and Australia. Under a safety case plan, a refinery must provide regulators with an outline of the steps it will take to ensure safety. The regulators will evaluate the plan, and if they approve it, they will monitor the company to make sure the plan is being followed. This system incorporates the European method of reducing as much risk as possible before something goes wrong.

American refineries, like ExxonMobile’s plant in Baton Rouge, believe that their current internal safety processes are generally sufficient to protect against worker injury, spills, or other disasters. Te companies point to extensive state and federal regulations, which include limits on pollution, emissions, and wastes. The companies must also create risk management plans to prevent accidents, as well as emergency plans in case of spills or explosions.

Environmental advocates point out that these regulations are only enforced by minimal fines. For example, the ExxonMobil refinery in Baton Rouge was recently fined $2.3 million for hundreds of safety violations in the past five years. While that may seem significant, ExxonMobile is one of the most profitable companies in history, and earned approximately $89 million per day in 2013. Clearly, $2.3 million is not a large enough fine to cause a meaningful change in corporate policies.

It is unlikely that American oil refineries will implement the expansive, proactive safety measures which characterize European facilities without significant changes to administrative regulations and federal law. As long as companies focus only on complying with regulations rather than improving overall safety, refinery workers will likely continue to face dangerous jobs and the possibility of spills, explosions, or other disasters.

If your property has been harmed as a result of an oil spill or refinery explosion, you need an experienced oilfield contamination lawyer on your side. Call (800) 374-8422 to speak with an attorney at Simien & Simien today.