USW and Philips Remember Texas Chemical Explosion & Fire 20 Years Later

23 Workers Died; Process Safety Management Standard Developed as a Result

Contacts: Kim Nibarger at (412) 562-2587, knibarger@usw.org

(Pittsburgh) – The United Steelworkers (USW) and Chevron Philips Petroleum conducted a remembrance today of a horrific explosion and fire started at the Phillips petroleum refinery in Pasadena, Texas on this day in 1989, which took some ten hours to bring under control.  There were 23 fatalities and 314 injures.  Facility damages resulted in over $700 million as a result of a release of highly flammable polyethylene during a maintenance process.

“There are many for whom that day will live forever, vivid in their nightmares and waking hours,” said USW International vice president Gary Beevers. “Many were affected as they lost a family member or friend that day, while many others who work at other petrochemical facilities thought: ‘That could have been us.’”

Unfortunately, 20 years later, it is sad to note some other similar accidents in the petrochemical industry.  Phillips had fatal accidents in 1999 and 2000 in the K-Resin section of the facility.  In 1997 and again in 1999 the Tosco Avon refinery in California experienced fatal accidents.  At Arco in Channelview, Texas in 1990, 17 workers were killed in an accident and in 1998; six workers were killed in an explosion and fire at the Equilon refinery in Anacortes, Washington.  More recently the BP refinery in Texas City, Texas had a release and fire where 23 workers lost their lives in 2005. 

Fires and equipment failures are an ongoing event and in most cases the end result is not fatal, but the loss and damage to equipment is huge, not to mention the affect it has on people who are involved in these events.

In July of 1990, partly because of the Phillips tragedy as well as a number of other serious and often fatal events in the petrochemical industries, the process began to develop 29 CFR 1910.119, commonly referred to as the Process Safety Management (PSM) standard, which became effective in May of 1992.  The hope was that by following the mandates in this standard that the work in highly hazardous processes would become safer. 

Recently OSHA has begun a National Emphasis Program (NEP) for oil refineries and the results have brought to light many instances where the PSM standard has not been effectively implemented. 

“The question is how many more people have to die before the benefits of following the regulations of the PSM standard are understood,” said Beevers. “As we look back 20 years at the failures and fatalities at the Phillips plant, let’s try to look ahead to a day where our members hold their employers accountable for following the PSM standard.  Let’s also look toward a day where employers are anxious to fully implement all elements of the standard because it makes their facilities safer.”

“In 20 years we have not done what needs to be done to make this a reality,” said Beevers. “As we remember those who lost their lives at Phillips, let’s make out actions speak to the reality of safer workplaces.”

The USW represent 850,000 workers in North America. Some 30,000 are employed in the petroleum industry.

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