Union takes part
in inspection

An accident investigation team from the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers International Union, known as PACE, was in Texas City on Thursday to inspect the cause of Wednesday's explosion.

PACE Local 4-1 of Texas City represents 1,000 workers at the refinery and another 180 at BP's neighboring chemical plant, a union spokeswoman said. Though union representatives said no union members were killed, they believed about five members were seriously injured.

Debbie Hayes, emergency response team coordinator, said the union recorded about 20 industrial accident-related fatalities nationwide of PACE members last year and about 13 catastrophic injuries.

March 24, 2005, 11:53PM

Some see deadly side to cost-efficient labor

BP says it follows training standards and hires based on safety performance


The explosion at Texas City's BP refinery Wednesday draws attention once again to the role contractors play at the plants.

Contractors are often hired for specialized work and to keep costs down, but some industry observers say they have not always had all the safety training they need.

"Contractors are all over the refineries because they are experts at construction, for example, or retrofitting facilities or things like that," said Bill Helfand, who practices labor and employment law at Chamberlain Hrdlicka in Houston. "It's a cost-efficient way of obtaining highly skilled specialized labor for the duration you need it."

Jacobs Engineering Group said 11 of the workers among the dead after Wednesday's blast were theirs. Three of the remaining four were consultants who worked for California-based Fluor, a Fluor company spokesman said Thursday.

Jacobs, also based in California, said it had 375 workers inside the plant doing maintenance at the time of the explosion and that all 11 of the dead were inside a staff office trailer about 150 yards from the unit where the explosion occurred.

Jacobs, one of the world's largest engineering and construction firms, has had offices in Houston since 1974, and many of its 4,000 local employees work closely with refinery and petrochemical companies.

It's unknown what caused the explosion, and an investigation may not reveal the source for weeks, if not months.

Jacobs declined to answer questions related to the explosion or the safety training it provides employees.

Industry criticized

In the early 1990s, after a series of plant explosions, the petrochemical industry came under fire for relying heavily on contractors for routine maintenance and repair work.

The criticism especially grew louder after a blast at the Phillips Petroleum Co.'s plant in Pasadena in 1989 left 23 dead and hundreds injured.

An increased use of contract workers for the most hazardous jobs at refineries led to a higher number of accidents, said Thomas Kochan, a professor at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was on a steering committee for a government-sponsored report prompted by the Phillips blast.

BP says standards 'strict'

Government safety regulators responded with new standards meant to curb such tragedies.

Among the new standards: Employers had to establish a screening process and evaluate contract employers' safety performance and programs.

BP spokesman Hugh Depland said each company is responsible for training its own employees.

"We have very strict standards for safety and infrastructure in place for our employees and for the selection of contractors," he said. "We do look at safety performance to help us to decide who we should choose to come on to our sites and do work for us."

John Miles, the regional director for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said there are training standards that have to be met by both contractors and regular employees.

A review of how those standards were met will be part of the BP investigation.

Union representatives declined to comment on safety standards or compliance at the plant, saying it's too early to draw conclusions.

Lynne Baker, a spokeswoman for the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union, said though contractors can unionize, none of those killed in the explosion were members of the Local 4-1 that represents workers there..

She didn't speak specifically to the workers in Texas City, but said members often get more safety training through unions.

Chronicle reporters Lynn Cook and Tom Fowler contributed to this report.


 Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle


March 26, 2005, 1:01AM


Blast probe focuses on blaze a day before

THE CAUSE: Flash fires 'are not supposed to happen'

THE VICTIMS: All 15 of the dead have now been identified


TEXAS CITY - Investigators seeking the cause of this week's BP refinery disaster turned their attention Friday to reports that a fire broke out at the plant's octane-enhancing unit less than 24 hours before it exploded.

But the significance of the flash fire, which ignited about 2:45 p.m. Tuesday, is just another mystery facing state, federal and oil company investigators as they launch a probe that may take a year to complete. Thus far investigators have been restricted to the perimeter of the blast zone. They hope to be able to closely examine the wreckage this weekend.

BP spokesman Bill Stephens Friday said the flash fire erupted from a 3/4 -inch bleeder valve on a furnace line in the plant's isomerization unit. The blaze, blamed on a missing valve plug, was put out in seconds with a handheld fire extinguisher, he said. No one was injured.

At 1:20 p.m. Wednesday, the facility exploded with a force that rocked buildings in Galveston, killing 15 people and injuring more than 100. Authorities described the accident as the deadliest in the oil and chemical industry in more than a decade.

Questioned about the earlier flash fire, Stephens conceded that "fires are not supposed to happen," and pledged that its possible connection with the explosion will be scrutinized.

Stephen Selk, an investigations manager with U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, said all refinery fires should be preventable. "To accept otherwise is fatalistic," he said.

John Bresland, another of the board's investigators, said a review of videotape of the explosion and a preliminary view of the wreckage from the blast zone's periphery suggest that leakage of flammable chemicals used in the octane-enhancing process might have been responsible for the deadly explosion.

Early in the investigation, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security dismissed the possibility that the explosion had resulted from a terrorist act. On Friday, Bresland expressed doubt that Tuesday's flash fire was linked to the later explosion, although he said that possibility would be investigated.

Hexane and pentane, flammable substances used in the isomerization unit, were possibly involved in the explosion, he said.

Bresland said his agency, which can make recommendations but has no enforcement powers, will report to the community through a public hearing in about six months. A final report will be made in about a year.

Meanwhile Friday, Galveston County Chief Medical Examiner Stephen Pustilnik announced his office has identified all 15 of Wednesday's dead. The process was completed sooner than expected because DNA analysis, a procedure employed in the most difficult identification cases, proved unnecessary.

Pustilnik said the remains were identified through fingerprints, dental and surgical records and other standard means within 12 hours.

Seena Simon, spokesman for the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, said seven of the injured remained in critical condition Friday. Three were hospitalized in good condition, and 13 others have been released.

BP America president Ross Pillari, who arrived in Texas City Thursday, has pledged his company's full support for the multilevel investigation.

"We will continue to cooperate with all local, state and federal authorities," he said. "We will also commit our full corporate resources to investigating the cause of the accident."

John Mogford, BP's group vice president for exploration and production, and Tim Holt, vice president of onshore U.S. production, arrived in Texas City on Friday to coordinate the in-house investigation. The Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers International Union, which represents many refinery workers, also has expressed a desire to launch an investigation.

As investigative teams assembled, BP announced that it has completed its search-and-rescue operations within the blast zone. Monitoring for hazardous substances continues inside and outside the site. No asbestos has been detected, BP reported, nor has benzene, a cancer-causing chemical, or volatile organic compounds.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is in charge of such monitoring.

The massive 1,200-acre Texas City refinery, which was built in 1934 and is one of the oldest in the Houston area, employs 1,100 BP workers and 2,200 contract employees. The dead workers all had been contract employees of JE Merit or Fluor Daniel, working on an isomerization unit maintenance project. The explosion occurred as workers attempted to restart the facility after a two-week shutdown.

The presence of non-union contract workers continued to grow as an issue of contention Friday, with Allan Jamail, an official of Pipefitters Union Local 211, charging such workers lack proper training.

"The non-union worker's whole livelihood is depending on him satisfying his schedule-driven boss," Jamail said. "The schedule-driven boss is trying to please the schedule-driven contractor who is driven by plant management. Plant management is only going to be happy with the contractor if the contractor finishes the job on time."

But at least some oil and chemical workers responding to a Houston Chronicle solicitation to share their stories with readers disagreed.

"I am tired of hearing on the news that because these men and women were not in a union that safety was compromised," said one, who identified himself only as "KCB." "When you apply at a contractor for turnaround, no matter what position welder, pipefitter, plant manager, etc., the risks are well known.

" ... The men and women that work for contractors put their lives in danger daily to keep our country running."

Chronicle reporter Purva Patel contributed to this report.



  Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle


March 29, 2005, 12:54AM


Counselors help survivors deal with grief

Many employees suffer emotionally in wake of tragedy


When an explosion rocked the BP oil refinery in Texas City last week, killing 15 workers and injuring dozens more, they weren't the only ones affected.

Employees who didn't get a scratch, including those who weren't even on duty at the time, are suffering emotionally.

Like many organizations that have experienced a tragedy, BP brought in a team of grief counselors to handle the psychological side effects.

"You need to heal emotionally to deal with this just as you need to heal physically," said BP spokesman Bill Stephens. "The last thing we want is people to get distracted."

The Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union, which represents the BP employees, has brought in a grief counselor who specializes in industrial accidents.

In the past several days, Allan McDougall estimates he has counseled about 25 BP workers.

"I get concerned when people say they're fine," said McDougall, who works for the United Steelworkers of America in Pittsburgh and is on the road two to three weeks a month counseling in the aftermath of workplace accidents.

"It will manifest later on in life" through alcoholism, prescription drugs, street drugs, high blood pressure, anxiety attacks and clinical depression, McDougall said.

"If you don't deal with it, it gets buried," he said.

Fifteen percent of companies offered grief counseling in 2004, up from 12 percent in 2002, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

Many companies also offer grief counseling through their employee assistance programs that helps workers handle family and other non-work-related problems.

In 2004, 70 percent of organizations offered employee assistance programs, up from 68 percent in 2002, according to the human resource organization.

16 counselors on hand

At BP, grief counselors have been available since the first day of the accident for emergency responders, employees and contractors, Stephens said.

By Monday, 16 counselors were meeting with employees and contractors.

The refinery is encouraging its contractors and employees to meet with the experts either alone or in a group.

BP's management team will have a group session today with counselors, he said.

Stephens said he hasn't seen a counselor himself but he can see that coming soon.

"Like so many, I've been so busy I have delayed some of that grief, but sometimes you have to let go," he said.

McDougall said employees often feel guilt following an accident that they could have prevented it or that they didn't say goodbye in the morning or that they had an argument with someone who was killed or injured. Sometimes they feel guilty because they're alive.

"Fatalities make people feel very reflective," said McDougall. "I encourage them to live today and enjoy the day and not live in the past or the future."

Initially, everyone seems to be on autopilot going through the interviews, the investigations and the funerals, he said. But some of the hardest times are three to four weeks after the accident, when things go back to "normal."

Part of his job is to tell workers what to expect that they'll feel sad and may cry for no apparent reason or may have dreams in which they "can't stop the movie."

McDougall estimates that 30 percent of the BP workers he has counseled were not at the plant at the time of the explosion. It can awaken things that happened five years ago, such as a car accident.

A growing trend

There's a growing awareness among companies that grief counseling is the appropriate thing to do either following a catastrophe or when a long-term employee dies of natural causes, said Kenneth Collins, a workplace consultant on mental health issues in Orinda, Calif.

It's a natural, widespread response following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that employers need to deal with the mental health of their workers, Collins said.

People need to discuss the tragedy and process it, he said. Typically, their first thought is that it's unbelievable. It usually takes a day or two before the reality sinks in.

Group sessions can be an advantage, he said.

"It's very, very powerful to talk about a person and what that person meant to them," he said.

It's like a memorial service but more psychological than religious, he said.


 Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle