Shell Oil has been charged with $77,000 in fines by the Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) for workplace health violations following an investigation into an extensive toxic release last February.
L&I launched the investigation at Shell’s Puget Sound Refinery in Anacortes after discovering an incident where the refinery’s main flare released contaminants into the surroundings. A large number of complaints were received form the nearby community when residents noticed strange odors and contaminants in the air.
Refinery flaring is a disposal practice that burns off excess or waste gases and vapors that aren’t usable for production. In addition, the flares can be a safety device that reduces the chance of fire or explosion in the case of a power outage or other emergency. However, companies can’t just release any gases or chemicals they want: the flare has to first be decontaminated, and also turned off from time to time for routine maintenance.
The L&I investigation determined that Shell had not completed necessary decontamination steps when it shut down the main flare for routine maintenance. That failure to comply with safe work practices resulted in an uncontrolled release that exposed many workers to highly toxic substances including mercaptans, hydrogen sulfide, hydrocarbons and pyrophoric iron.
Workplace Safety Violation
This is not the first time the Anacortes Shell refinery has put worker safety at risk. In 2013 the company was also found guilty of skipping critical steps when shutting down the flare. That particular instance led to a major explosion that nearly injured a team of contractors and Shell employees.
For this most recent workplace safety violation (and environmental violation), Shell Oil was cited for one willful violation and fined the maximum of $70,000 for knowingly and intentionally refusing to comply with safe work practices for the control of hazards when shutting down the flare.
Labor and Industries also fined the company for one serious violation, which carried a penalty of $7,000 for having its workers follow incorrect procedure in shutting down the flare.
Workplace Injury or Death
L&I can cite a willful violation when there is evidence of plain indifference, a substitution of judgment or an intentional disregard to a hazard or rule. A serious violation is given when there is a significant probability that worker death or serious physical harm could result from a hazardous practice.
Within the past three years, L&I has responded to a number of complaints that resulted in 11 inspections at the Shell refinery.
Shell has been given 15 working days to appeal the citation. When companies pay penalty money for violations, those funds are placed in the workers’ compensation supplemental pension fund, which helps support workers and families of those who have died on the job.