If you’ve ever spent more than 10 minutes in a chemical plant or refinery, or been engaged in a conversation about safety in those industries, you’ve probably heard someone say something like “we ain’t making chocolate candy out here, y’know.” It was just that comment (I doni’t remember who said it that day; I know it was in the HBCD Control Room in Magnolia) that prompted me to do a little research. When somebody proclaims that “This ain’t no ice cream factory,” they are implying that this (oil refining, chemical manufacturing) is a dangerous business, and has some serious risks involved (true), unlike making something as benign as ice cream or chocolate candy. Really?
I spent a little time on OSHA’s statistics page, and dug out the safety performance data for a variety of industries. What I found was surprising. Well, not really – but you might find it surprising. Making candy and sweets is dangerous business. Boiling oil is a lot safer than you might think. At least in terms of how many actual injuries occur. This chart shows the comparative injury rates in 2002 for a variety of industries (it’s tedious to go through those raw data; even if this data is 7 years old, the trend is still valid). Food processing has the highest rates, while chemical manufacturing, oil exploration and refining are among the lowest.
Why is that? My own personal theory: when you walk in to a chemical plant or refinery, you know this thing could go south quickly, and do massive damage in an instant. And you could go home with parts missing. That sort of tends to get your attention. On the other hand, if you’re going into the marshmallow factory, you’re probably not too worried about an explosion or fire. But, they’ve got some serious mixers, heaters, cooking vats – equipment that can hurt you just as fast and seriously as any chemical release. Just my own personal theory, but I think the refinery and chemical workers are more acutely aware of the risks. So everytime I hear someone tell me “this ain’t no ice cream factory,” I remind them that indeed it isn’t and I’m glad of it – those are dangerous places.
Oh – and if you’re thinking of massive, multiple fatality events that make the news – like the big explosion at BP’s Texas City Refinery, don’t forget I’m talking here about “averages” – refinery incidents tend to be massive and make headlines. And don’t forget that massive, multiple fatality events can happen at chicken plants and sugar mills, too. Smaller, one-off injuries that happen EVERY DAY usually don’t even make the papers in their hometown. Check out the Weekly Toll to see how often these “small” events occur. Shocking, really.