By Erwin Seba
TEXAS CITY, Texas (Reuters) - U.S. workplace regulators are probing accident data reported by Marathon Petroleum Corp at its huge Texas refinery, as laborers and union representatives raise concerns that safety practices implemented a decade ago following a deadly explosion are being rolled back.
The inspection by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration at Marathon's Galveston Bay Refinery, where the worst U.S. refining accident of the last 30 years occurred under former owner BP Plc, came "in response to a complaint regarding the recording of workplace injuries and illnesses," a Labor Department official said.
Seven current and former workers told Reuters the complaint stems from broader concerns they have that Marathon is scrapping some of the voluntary safety practices BP put in place after the explosion that killed 15 people on March 23, 2005. BP sold the plant, which used to be known as the BP Texas City refinery, to Marathon in 2013 as part of a $2.4 billion deal.
Marathon, the country's third-largest refiner with seven plants nationwide, confirmed "OSHA initiated an investigation regarding the proper classification of a handful of incidents."
OSHA investigations are fairly common at the nation's 142 refineries and the launch of a probe does not necessarily mean the agency believes there has been wrongdoing.
Since Marathon began running the refinery, workers who have been injured are, when possible, taken to onsite doctors who treat them with ibuprofen and ice packs, according to workers and union representatives. The injured employees are then given drug screenings and sent home, they said.
Being sent home to await the results of a drug test does not count as lost time for an injury, which would need to be reported to OSHA.
"They put them off on the guise of waiting to get the drug test results back before this person can come back to work," said Thomas Garland, a United Steelworkers union health and safety representative. "But in reality, these people are home healing and it's not counted as a day away from work."
Reuters could not independently confirm these assertions. Marathon said its policies for categorizing workplace injuries comply with OSHA rules.
Marathon spokesman Jamal Kheiry said laborers have the power to stop work they think is unsafe and that "protection of people is our top operational priority."
Workers said that stop authority rests mostly with managers.
BLAST FELT MILES AWAY
Safety at the Galveston Bay plant has been a sensitive issue since the big explosion, caused when the accidental release of a cloud of volatile hydrocarbon vapor was ignited by the idling engine of a parked diesel truck.
The blast, felt 5 miles (8 km) away from the refinery, killed contract workers finishing lunch in their work trailers and injured 180 other people.
Following the explosion, BP had banned wooden trailers from the site, and trailers in general have become less common at most U.S. refineries to keep such structures outside areas where blast shockwaves could splinter them. Autopsy reports said blunt force trauma, probably from being hit by debris from the trailers, caused the deaths in the 2005 accident.
Marathon has allowed wooden trailers similar to the ones destroyed in 2005 to return to limited areas, said union safety representatives. The trailers provide office space, dining areas and respite from heat, sun and rain during work breaks and can be moved to different job sites.
The company said it complies with all industry standards for locating permanent and temporary structures at the plant.
Safety representatives and workers said diesel-engine motor vehicles, long known as a safety risk, have also been allowed to park near refinery units. That saves time and money associated with busing in workers from an off-site lot.
Marathon said vehicle use at the plant is limited to designated areas.
Workers raised other concerns, such as Marathon periodically writing variances to its own safety policies, and its proposal to replace eight union safety representatives selected after 2005 with two people picked by the company.
Marathon said variances are rare and Kheiry said any procedural change is rigorously evaluated.
"Our safety procedures are designed to ensure the safest possible environment," Kheiry said.
The last death at the Galveston Bay plant was in 2008, though there have been injuries.
The workers' complaints come at a delicate time as Marathon and the local chapter of the USW union negotiate a new labor contract. While a four-year national agreement was agreed last month, safety issues have emerged as a sticking point in local talks.
OSHA has carried out 12 inspections of Marathon sites in the past 10 years, of which only one was a result of a complaint prior to Galveston Bay, official data show.
Fines tend to be relatively small: a 2007 inspection of the Canton, Ohio, refinery resulted in 45 citations with total penalties of $321,500, according to OSHA's website.
(Reporting by Erwin Seba; Editing by Terry Wade and Alan Crosby)