US authorities have charged BP with 10 “serious offences” after an explosion killed two workers at an Ohio oil refinery last year, the latest of several health and safety incidents overseen by the British oil company.
An investigation by the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration found that operational and training disruptions at the oil company’s Toledo refinery contributed to the September 2022 accident.
Two brothers died of burns after an attempt to correct rising fluid levels led to the release of naphtha — a flammable liquid hydrocarbon mixture — into the refinery’s fuel-gas system, said OSHA, the government agency responsible for worker health and safety.
The agency determined that employees had not been properly trained to identify the presence of naphtha and that BP had failed to properly define and implement closure procedures. It proposed a $156,250 fine.
BP has been involved in previous high-profile accidents in the US. In 2005, 15 people were killed and 170 injured in an explosion at a Texas refinery, which the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board blamed on BP’s “safety deficiencies at all levels”. The company later agreed to pay a record $50.6 million fine for violations at its Texas refinery.
The 2010 disaster on BP’s Deepwater Horizon platform in the Gulf of Mexico, the worst environmental disaster in US history, killed 11 people. That accident has cost the company more than $60 billion to date and it is still embroiled in lawsuits. BP paid $1.4 billion in compensation last year and estimates it will pay about $1.3 billion this year.
“This company has a history of looking the other way when it comes to safety and OSHA has fined them before,” said Debbie Berkowitz, an employee safety adviser and fellow at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, who served as OSHA Chief of Staff to the Obama administration.
BP said in a statement Thursday that it was “committed to safe and reliable operations at all of our facilities.” It added: “We have been actively working with OSHA in investigating the Toledo incident and will review the citations and continue our discussions with the agency.”
OSHA largely lacks the authority to issue significant fines. The maximum fine for a serious violation is $15,625. An intentional or repeated violation can result in a fine of up to $156,259, according to the agency.
“OSHA fines are notoriously low,” Berkowitz said. “They are much lower than any other government agency.”
BP chief executive Bernard Looney received a total pay package of £10.03 million for 2022. It was cut by £746,000, partly due to the two deaths at the Toledo refinery. BP operated the refinery, which it co-owned with Canadian-based Cenovus Energy, before selling its stake to Cenovus last month.
Looney was named CEO in February 2020 and launched an overhaul of the company when he committed to reducing BP’s dependence on fossil fuels and investing in greener forms of energy.
As part of the reset, Looney appointed a new executive team, but did not appoint a specific senior leader responsible for safety. In the current structure, BP’s head of safety is not on the executive team and reports to the executive vice president of production and operations, not the general manager.