How Dangerous Are Chemical Manufacturing Plants And Oil Refineries? Which Is Safer?
Headline news, an oil pipeline explodes harming dozens and killing several. The disaster sparks fear and controversy over the industry for several weeks or more yet the only resolution is more regulations and fewer facilities. A chemical manufacturing facility has a leak contaminating the facility or product creating recalls or hazardous waste cleanups. Production is halted and several were injured in the process.
We all know it is a dangerous industry especially the way the media portrays it whenever an incident occurs. Yet, it isn’t as dangerous as many make it out to be. For instance, in 2016, there were 89 fatalities in the mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction. That’s about 10 people for every 100,000 that work in the industry and 1.7% of all fatalities in the workplace.
You can add in the 318 manufacturing deaths which are about 2 for every 100,000 workers, and that would bring our total to 7.8% of the total fatalities. These statistics provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics put the overall danger level of oil refining and chemical production to be relatively on the lower end.
Looking at the chart above, you can see that the most fatalities occur in construction nearly 1000 deaths in 2016 alone. The most dangerous quantity wise, construction ties with oil refining for 10 fatalities for every 100,000 workers. Compare that to the agriculture or transportation industries and the petroleum field doesn’t appear to be that dangerous. Keep in mind there are almost as many deaths in retail as there are in manufacturing.
The neat fact about the manufacturing industry is the average drops to about 2 deaths for every 100,000 full-time individuals in the workplace. This is impressive for such a large industry. So why are petroleum and chemical manufacturing depicted so dangerous?
It is honestly due to the fact the events and catastrophes are just that, big catastrophes. The explosions and fires are more newsworthy than someone slipping on the way down the stairs. The number one cause of disability in the workplace is overexertion, which makes up 23% of the cases according to the Insurance Information Institute. This can cause larger incidents but is the root of the problem.
• Overexertion ($13.8 billion, 23 percent)
• Falls on the same level ($10.6 billion, 17.7 percent)
• Falls to lower level ($5.5 billion, 9.2 percent)
Regulations on handling hazardous materials will not prevent the most common issues of human error. Recently, more focus has been directed towards natural disasters and preparation for these catastrophic happenings. Plans have been discussed for analysis of quake possibilities and potential flooding dilemmas to be mapped out prior to developing the facilities and are being considered for current operating locations as well.
Most of the accidents are caused by negligence.
• Explosions and fires in plants and refineries
• Chemical burns and inhalation of toxic fumes in chemical plants
• Defective or malfunctioning equipment in oil refineries
• Overheating of crude oil in refineries
Although, serious injuries happen less frequently than in the past.
There is no way of knowing when a disaster will strike however facilities can be prepared. Regular checks of piping and valves are critical. Over the last several years new safety and maintenance regulations have been put in place that has lowered the risk of these large incidents occurring. Equipment malfunctions are preventable in most circumstances. As technology has grown the ability to monitor pressures and potential malfunctions has improved allowing systems and equipment to be checked more efficiently and more regularly.
- Industrial machinery installation, repair, and maintenance workers
— Fatal injuries in 2016: 9.3 per 100,000 workers
— Total: 45 fatal injuries, 4,490 nonfatal injuries
— Most common accident: Struck by object
- First-line supervisors of construction trades and extraction workers
— Fatal injuries in 2016: 18.0 per 100,000 workers
— Total: 134 fatal injuries, 6,090 nonfatal injuries
— Most common accident: Falls, slips, and trips
- Logging workers
— Fatal injuries in 2016: 135.9 per 100,000 workers
— Total: 91 fatal injuries, 900 nonfatal injuries
— Most common accident: Struck by object
The above stats are from a USA Today study on 2016 workplace fatalities breaking out the top 25 jobs and industries deemed the most dangerous. Logging claims the title with 135.9 deaths for every 100,000 workers. Chemical manufacturing and oil refining were not there own categories but were incorporated into the industrial machinery and extraction supervisors categories with construction and other industries. As you can see there is a much higher count of injuries but fatalities per 100,000 are considerably lower than that of logging.
Handling dangerous chemicals is dangerous and those working in the petroleum and chemical industries are aware of the hazards. Tank cleaning, alky (alkylation) units, and confined spaces are some of the most hazardous elements of the industry. The chemicals can produce toxic residues and potential breathing hazards. The tanks are confined and can induce oxygen deficiency and other hazards from carbon monoxide to other chemicals that may have been introduced to the tank. Lastly, confined spaces are inevitable on oil rigs and other facilities where chemicals and ducts are in enclosed spaces making it difficult to escape if disaster does strike.
OSHA Process Safety Management (PSM) is a comprehensive federal regulation developed as part of the Clean Air Act Amendments (CAAA) that required the Department of Labor and the Environmental Protection Association (EPA) to promulgate a safety standard to prevent accidental releases of chemicals that could pose a threat to employees.
The Occupational Safety & Health Association (OSHA) has created standard operating procedures for hazards and toxins in the workplace and maintain a list of over 179 toxic chemicals. They began their efforts to increase safety in the chemical industry in the 1980s after a chemical leak killed over 2,000 individuals in Bhopal, India. Since this event, the industry has not only grown in size but in safety as well.
There have been reports for at least 33 chemical fires at plants within the last year. As you can see below fatal injuries have increased over the years. However, our labor force is the largest it has ever been. Of the hazards that cause fatalities, transportation, negligence, and human errors are responsible for most incidents.
Which is safer, chemical manufacturing plants or the oil refineries?
It really depends how you look at it. From a macro level, the manufacturing side has higher fatalities but a lower rate per 100,000 workers where the extraction and refining has lower fatalities but a higher rate. The industries are also grouped in with others making it difficult to differentiate exactly what incidents can be attributed to each industry. In short both are dangerous industries yet relatively safe compared to many others. Most of the incidents are preventable with proper maintenance and procedures in place however, we cannot control mother nature only attempt to be prepared.
- Agriculture, logging, transportation and construction are the most dangerous industries in terms of fatalities.
- Manufacturing plants average 2 fatal incidents for every 100,000 employees but 318 in total.
- Oil extraction and other mining were responsible for 89 fatalities but 10 per 100,000 employees.
- There are far more injuries than fatalities in the oil refining and chemical manufacturing industries and many organizations are working to lower the dangers.