State hiring beginners for critical refinery-inspector jobs

Repost from SFGate

State hiring beginners for critical refinery-inspector jobs

State hiring new graduates for tough jobs that protect workers, public
Jaxon Van Derbeken  |  May 4, 2014

State regulators who were handed millions of dollars from the oil industry to improve refinery safety after the disastrous 2012 fire at Chevron’s Richmond plant are hiring inspectors out of college with little or no experience in the field, The Chronicle has learned.

The Legislature assessed new fees on oil refineries and dedicated the money for increased oversight in response to scathing federal criticism of the state’s refinery oversight leading up to the fire, which sent 15,000 people to hospitals complaining of respiratory and other problems. Federal investigators found that California conducted too few comprehensive inspections of refineries and that its lax monitoring allowed Chevron to ignore corroded pipes, one of which sprang a leak and started the fire.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which led the Chevron investigation, has also questioned the state’s inspection efforts in the wake of an acid spill in February at the Tesoro Corp. refinery near Martinez that sent two workers to the hospital with chemical burns.

In its reports after the Chevron fire, the board called for the state to hire more “experienced, competent” refinery inspectors. At the time of the Richmond fire, the state had seven inspectors, several of whom had years of experience working at refineries but did not have sufficient engineering backgrounds to stand up to industry pressure, federal investigators said.

After Cal/OSHA, the agency responsible for inspections, acknowledged that seven inspectors weren’t enough, the Legislature approved $5.4 million in annual fees on oil refineries and said the money should be spent on at least 15 inspectors.

19-member team

The Department of Industrial Relations – which oversees Cal/OSHA – hired six new inspectors and transferred employees from elsewhere in the agency to create a 19-member team that will inspect oil refineries and other hazardous-materials plants. However, none of the new hires has any refinery safety experience, state officials say.

Most have bachelor’s degrees in engineering and some have master’s, said Mike Wilson, chief scientist for Cal/OSHA, but none has ever worked in a refinery or done an inspection at one.

“We have some young new people – I am confident they will all be up to speed to where we intend to take this program,” said Christine Baker, head of the Department of Industrial Relations. “They are all very qualified people, or they would not even be considered to meet the civil service standards of this position.”

They will join existing refinery inspectors and six transfers from elsewhere in Cal/OSHA in the new unit, Wilson said. The transferred inspectors have not worked at refineries either.

Sponsor’s concerns

State Sen. Loni Hancock, author of the bill that raised the money for new inspectors, said she has pressed state officials to explain their hiring strategy, and so far is not satisfied.

“I am trying to get enough highly qualified inspectors on board so we don’t have a Tesoro a year after we have a Chevron,” said Hancock, D-Berkeley. She said she has asked Cal/OSHA why it is hiring recent engineering graduates instead of industry veterans, but “we have not gotten those answers yet.”

Wilson said the hires and transfers will undergo training over several months before starting inspections. Cal/OSHA expects its beefed-up unit to conduct comprehensive inspections at four refineries per year, each lasting roughly five months – compared with the 50 to 70 hours of staff time typical of inspections before the Chevron fire.

An official with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board questioned whether Cal/OSHA was taking the right approach in its hiring.

“They need more experienced people,” said Don Holmstrom, head of the federal agency’s Western region investigations office. “Not all of the people need to be experienced people, but you could have half of them with 10 or more years in a refinery or a chemical plant.”

Only about one-fourth of the 19 inspectors in the beefed-up inspection unit will have that much experience, according to numbers provided by the Department of Industrial Relations. All of those were with Cal/OSHA at the time of the Chevron fire.

“It doesn’t sound necessarily like they are hiring the same kind of people we would hire,” Holmstrom said.

Hancock said lawmakers wanted “enough highly qualified inspectors to go into these very dangerous and complex places – people who are skilled engineers in this area – and make sure safety regulations are being met.”

Ready for challenges

Only inspectors with experience and knowledge will be equipped to take on companies like Chevron with “armies of lawyers who are qualified and highly trained, and they challenge every fine, every finding, no matter how small, and string it out,” Hancock said.

Holmstrom echoed Hancock’s concerns, adding that even the holdover veterans at Cal/OSHA aren’t “chemical engineers with refinery experience.”

They may have experience operating refineries, he said, “but don’t have technical experience needed to challenge the companies. Without it, that’s not going to happen.”

Baker said the holdovers have “over 60 years of combined hands-on experience in refinery work, which has contributed enormously to the effectiveness of our oversight.”

She added that although “staffing is critical” to improving refinery safety, increased staffing alone is “insufficient to improve refinery safety at the pace and scale that I believe is needed.”

“Like most public health and safety problems, enforcement efforts are most effective when they are part of a comprehensive prevention effort,” Baker said.

For the newly created refinery inspection team to do its job, she said, it “must be provided with modernized regulations” that would make refineries provide proof that they identify and fix hazards. The Department of Industrial Relations is drawing up such rules, Baker said.

Big enough team?

Federal officials aren’t sure that even a 19-inspector unit is enough, given that the state is responsible for ensuring that California’s 14 active refineries and 1,800 chemical plants are being run safely.

Great Britain, which has the same number of oil refineries as California, dedicates a team of four inspectors per refinery, backed up by scientific experts, said Holmstrom, who recently visited England to study its approach to refinery safety.

Hancock said she is determined to “figure out how to get the inspections done that we need, and if (state officials) can’t provide them, we ought to give it back to the federal government – let the CSB (Chemical Safety Board) run our oil refinery program. I’m looking to see evidence that there is some sense of urgency and commitment here.”

Wilson said California’s reform process has been rapid, by the state’s standards, but change “doesn’t happen overnight.”

Jaxon Van Derbeken is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.