The chemical industry needs fresh eyes

Team looking at BP’s safety failings benefited from its diverse membership. Editor Mark Rosenzweig interviews panel member Dennis Hendershot for an insider's perspective.

By Mark Rosenzweig, editor in chief

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What do a former Secretary of State, a doctor at the Mayo clinic, and the head of a downtown-development group have in common? They all served on the Independent Safety Review Panel formed to investigate BP after the March 2005 explosion at the company’s Texas City, Texas, refinery that took 15 lives. So, too, did Dennis C. Hendershot, who I’ve known for years and who is the process safety guru for Ask the Experts on ChemicalProcessing.com. So, I contacted him to get an insider’s perspective on this unusual and high profile panel.

“Every member made an important contribution,” he stresses. For instance, the politicians and lawyers understood how to say exactly what was intended, factually and objectively, and brought experience in managing culture in large organizations. The people from other industries contributed knowledge of accident investigation, which differs in approach and techniques from usual chemical industry practice. “They go more into systematic causes — going beyond operators’ errors… The chemical industry doesn’t delve into root causes as much,” he notes. The person from the union helped get workers to talk freely and to participate in a corporate culture survey. “One thing that amazed me was how well the group worked together. It was a consensus, unanimous report,” he adds.

BP set up the panel after the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) in August 2005 issued its first-ever urgent safety recommendation — for an independent team to assess the safety culture and oversight at BP’s five North American refineries. The 11-member panel, which has just published its findings and recommendations (see Panel blasts BP's safety practices), consisted of:

  • James A. Baker, III, former U.S. Secretary of State and Secretary of the Treasury;
  • Frank L. Bowman, a nuclear engineer and long-time naval officer, who now heads the Nuclear Energy Institute;
  • Glenn Erwin, who had worked at the Texas City site from 1970 to 1994 and who now monitors refinery safety nationwide for a major union;
  • Slade Gordon, a former U.S. Senator and a member of the 9/11 Commission;
  • Hendershot, principal staff safety specialist at Chilworth Technologies and a staff consultant at AIChE’s Center for Chemical Process Safety;
  • Nancy G. Leveson, professor of aeronautics and astronautics and of engineering systems at M.I.T;
  • Sharon Priest, former Arkansas Secretary of State, who now leads a nonprofit downtown-development group in Little Rock, Ark.;
  • Isadore Rosenthal, past CSB board member and now a senior research fellow at the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center;
  • Paul V. Tebo, retired vice president for safety, health and the environment at DuPont;
  • Douglas A. Wiegmann, director of the human factors and patient safety research program at the Mayo Clinic; and
  • L. Duane Wilson, retired vice president, refining, marketing, supply & transportation — fuels technology for ConocoPhillips.

It was a massive effort. Dennis reckons that he averaged about 15 hr/wk working on the panel for the 15 months it existed, and that this was typical.

Dennis certainly sees a wider role for chemical industry “outsiders” in safety efforts, not just for accident investigations but even for process safety audits. In some cases, getting a person from outside the particular company might suffice. For significant events, though, he recommends bringing in people from other high-risk, high-tech industries.

You don’t need to be an outsider to see that’s sage advice.

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