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BP accused of ‘serious violations’ after fatal blast at US refinery

US authorities have accused BP of 10 “serious violations” after an explosion killed two workers at an Ohio oil refinery last year, the latest of a number of health and safety incidents under the British oil major’s watch.

An investigation by the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration found operating and training failures at the Toledo refinery operated by the oil company had contributed to the accident in September 2022.

Two brothers died from burns after an attempt to correct rising fluid levels led to a release of naphtha — a flammable liquid hydrocarbon mixture — into the refinery’s fuel gas system, OSHA, the government agency with responsibility for worker health and safety, said.

The agency determined that workers had not been properly trained to identify the presence of naphtha and that BP had failed to properly define and implement shutdown procedures. It proposed a fine of $156,250.

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 refinery in Texas, which the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board blamed on “safety deficiencies at all levels” of BP. The company later agreed to pay a record $50.6mn fine over violations at the Texas refinery.

The 2010 disaster at BP’s Deepwater Horizon platform in the Gulf of Mexico — the worst ecological disaster in US history — killed 11 people. That accident has so far cost the company more than $60bn and it is still embroiled in lawsuits. BP paid $1.4bn in compensation last year and estimates it will pay about $1.3bn 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, a worker safety consultant and fellow at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, who served as OSHA chief of staff in the Obama administration.

BP said in a statement on Thursday that it was “committed to safe and reliable operations at all of our facilities”. It added: “We have been actively co-operating with OSHA as it investigates the Toledo incident and we will review the citations and continue our discussions with the agency.”

OSHA largely lacks authority to hand out significant fines. The maximum penalty for a serious violation is $15,625. A wilful or repeat violation can lead to a fine of up to $156,259, according to the agency.

“OSHA fines are notoriously low,” said Berkowitz. “They’re much lower than any other government agency.”

BP chief executive Bernard Looney received a total pay package of £10.03mn for 2022. It was reduced by £746,000, in part due to the two deaths at the Toledo refinery. BP operated the refinery, which it jointly owned with Canada-based Cenovus Energy before selling its stake to Cenovus last month.

Looney was appointed chief executive in February 2020 and launched a corporate overhaul as he committed to reduce BP’s dependence on fossil fuels and invest in greener forms of energy.

As part of the reset, Looney appointed a new executive team but did not appoint a specific senior leader in charge of safety. Under the current structure, BP’s head of safety does not sit on the executive team and reports to the executive vice-president for production and operations, not the chief executive.

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