for Sunday Herald, 17 August 2003
A series of management failures by BP, Britain's biggest company, was responsible for life-threatening accidents at the Grangemouth petrochemical complex, the government's safety watchdog has concluded.
In a report to be published tomorrow, the Heath and Safety Executive (HSE) will accuse the oil giant of having let standards slip at Grangemouth. Managers failed to fulfil company policy, failed to detect "deteriorating performance", and failed to abide by the law, it will say.
The Sunday Herald has also discovered that the HSE has been worried that BP's plans to cut up to 1,000 jobs at Grangemouth could jeopardise safety. Last month it fired a warning shot across the company's bows, threatening legal action to enforce compliance with agreed procedures.
Michael Connarty, the Labour MP for Falkirk East, warns that the failings of BP's management will cause more accidents at Grangemouth in the future. "They are playing with fire. They are playing with the lives of the people who work at the plant and with the safety of the town," he says.
The company has not learnt lessons from the accidents that have plagued Grangemouth, he alleges. "They are storing up the potential for similar accidents like those in the past. They are living on massive amounts of overtime with a shift pattern that is highly dangerous."
BP Grangemouth suffered three major accidents in thirteen days during May and June 2000, culminating in a massive fire at its catalytic cracker. In January 2002, the company was fined a total of £1 million by Falkirk Sheriff Court after pleading guilty of failing to ensure the safety of workers and members of the public.
"Only good fortune prevented workplace and public casualties," said the HSE's head of land division, Dan Mitchell. "Industry must not become complacent about the risks posed by major accident hazards."
The results of the HSE's formal investigation into the three accidents are due to be released in a 130-page report tomorrow. The Sunday Herald can reveal that it concludes: "BP failed to achieve the operational control and maintenance of process and systems required by law."
The report also castigates the company's senior management for not doing enough to prevent the accidents. "BP group and complex management did not detect and intervene early enough on deteriorating performance," it says. "BP group policies set high expectations but these were not consistently achieved because of organisational and cultural reasons."
The report shows that the three accidents were linked, and were due to a combination of human errors and management weaknesses. An initial power failure on 29 May 2000 was caused by an underground electricity cable that had been damaged when a trench was being dug for a new cable.
The second accident, a "catastrophic" rupture in a pipeline next to a public road on 7 June, was partly due to flooding caused by the power failure. A trap designed to release steam under pressure was also left shut by mistake.
The third accident, the cracker fire, occurred on 10 June when the plant was being restarted after the power failure. Subsequent investigations discovered that a pipe connection had been incorrectly fitted.
The HSE says that since the accidents there has been "a sustained improvement in safety performance across the Grangemouth complex." But it also accepts that last month it had problems with the way BP was managing its highly controversial plans to shed up to 1,000 jobs.
"As part of our monitoring of their change processes we found some evidence which gave us some concern about delivery of the agreed policy resulting in a letter challenging BP in July", HSE's principal inspector, Alistair McNab, told the Sunday Herald yesterday.
"BP has responded positively and we have had more meetings since. We have not had to take any enforcement action, but will continue to monitor closely the situation."
McNab promised that HSE would ensure that BP fulfilled its duty to maintain safety, but expressed anxiety about other industries that risked serious accidents. "We continue to have concerns about the whole of the major hazards sector and hope this report will be a lever for change for the whole industry," he said.
There are 1,093 sites in the UK which fall under the 1999 Control of Major Accident Hazard Regulations, over 190 of which are in Scotland. They include power stations, chemical companies, oil and gas facilities, timber manufacturers and whisky distilleries.
Since the accidents at BP Grangemouth, one other Scottish company has been prosecuted for a major accident. Diosynth, a chemical company owned by Akzo Nobel in Buckhaven, Fife, was fined £60,000 in March this year for an explosion and fire which killed a 37-year old employee, Kevin Duncan.
Since May 2001 the HSE has also served legal notices on nine companies in Scotland for breaches of the major accident regulations. As well as Diosynth, they include Roche Vitamins in North Ayrshire, the Royal Ordnance factory in Renfrewshire, the Ben Nevis whisky distillery in Fort William and BP Amoco at Grangemouth (see table below).
"Changes in major hazards industries require very careful attention and HSE is concerned to ensure they do not go wrong," said McNab. "We will continue to ensure operators handle change professionally and we will use our formal enforcement power if necessary."
BP said that there had been a dramatic improvement in safety at Grangemouth since the accidents three years ago. The company had invested £80 million in safety upgrades in 2001 and is spending another £160 million in 2002 and 2003.
A BP spokesman pointed out that there had been a three-fold improvement in the site's personal safety performance. Grangemouth recently completed over a year’s operation without anyone losing a single working day because of injury.
"Through both the HSE's work and our own task force-led review of operations, we quickly identified those areas where we had fallen short of BP's high expectations for the management of safety and environmental performance. We implemented immediate actions to address these issues," the company spokesman said.
BP was shedding jobs in order to restore the competitiveness of Grangemouth and to reinforce its future prospects, he continued. "Our focus is on achieving best-in-class international standards of safety, plant reliability and costs. BP Grangemouth remains committed to building a track record of excellence across all areas of its operations."
Environmentalists, however, fear that BP may forget the lessons it claims to have learnt from the accidents. "We know that companies become complacent about safety and that history repeats itself," said Duncan McLaren, the chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland. "Will BP remember these lessons in five or ten years time?"
SCOTTISH COMPANIES THAT BROKE THE RULES DESIGNED TO REDUCE THE RISK OF MAJOR ACCIDENTS
company / date legal notice on breach of Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulations 1999 served by Health and Safety Executive
Royal Ordnance, Bishopton, Renfrewshire / 14 March 2003
Ben Nevis Distillery, Fort William / 5 March 2003
Roche Vitamins, Dalry, North Ayrshire / 11 October 2002
Borden Chemical, Cowie, Stirling / 27 September 2002
Colinton Manufacturing, Musselburgh, East Lothian / 19 September 2002
Albion Chemicals, Glasgow / 18 July 2002
Diosynth, Buckhaven, Fife / 2 July 2002
Total, St Fergus Gas Terminal, Aberdeenshire / 25 June 2002
Roche Vitamins, Dalry, North Ayrshire / 24 July 2001
BP Amoco, Grangemouth, Stirlingshire/ 31 May 2001
Source: Health and Safety Executive