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Impact of Bay Area Accident

In 2012- a pipe rupture at the Chevron Refinery in the Bay Area resulted in a fire and release of emissions.  Chevron, a major player in the refining industry and well known for a positive safety culture, has been undergoing a great deal of scrutiny and review of the incident.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board - - has released a draft report (Dec. 16, 2013) urging the overhaul of Refinery Industry Regulatory System in California and urges the adoption of the Safety Case Regime to Prevent Major Chemical Accidents.  The report is currently out for public comment.

Safety and environmental compliance are linked.  This incident started as a release of hydrocarbon material from piping and was being reviewed and investigated at the refinery (according to previous CSB reports on the root cause of the incident).  According to the CSB in its Press Release - it is suggested that "major refinery accidents .... could be made less likely by improving regulations."

The question may or may not be regulatory in nature.  In the US, our current response, is to increase regulation as an overall solution.  This may ultimately be contrary to solving the underlying problem.  Our regulatory framework may be partially responsible, i.e. the law of unintended consequences.  Could the conflict between regulations may actually create a situation that may result in an accident?  It has been seen before in terms of the human interaction with safety alert systems.  

As the safety systems became more electronic - more warning alarms were added to "help prevent an incident."  As an event escalated - more warnings until the operators reached a state of alarm overload and could not tell which alarms were the critical ones.  Thus, delaying a response.

It can be foreseen that - one might have a similar situation here - as we continue to add and/or modify regulations.  An example, because of an environmental need to reduce emissions, the time period between preventive maintenance activities are extended.  Which may in turn result in a failure because of an unforeseen or undetected corrosion problem.  Similarly - "Safety" may be seen as a means to minimize advances which could result in a reduction of risk.

As professionals in this area - we are charged with weighing risks. Regulations while the intention is good - may actually build in risks which may hamper the overall safety.  For example - there is a perception of risk not just actual risk.  If the perception of risk is lowered because of an administrative "fix" - does that really translates into a lower risk.  I typically use the example of sulfuric vs hydrofluoric acid.  Both are have high risks associated with them.  Hydrofluoric acid has the potential to result in greater harm and thus has is justifiably viewed as riskier.  Because, of this view, individuals handling the material are more careful and there are more engineering solutions used in managing the material.  Sulfuric acid can cause harm, and can even have the same ultimate consequences.  Yet, because of the familarity and the lower perception of risk is not viewed in the same way and we see more accidents/incidents associated with the material.  (There is also the impact of the greater use.)

While a review of the regulatory system may be needed - we have to keep in mind that the "traditional" solution of more regulation - may actually be negative.  

10 Comments to Impact of Bay Area Accident:

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