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BP Plans to Close its US Safety Watchdog

BP is disbanding the external safety ombudsman it set up after the fatal explosion in 2005 at its Texas City refinery, despite the growing number of concerns raised by the oil company's employees.

BP Plans to Close its US Safety Watchdog

More than half the issues raised since the office was established in 2006 relate to BP's operations in Alaska.

BP said that it would not extend the office's tenure beyond June next year. The move comes less than a fortnight after the company announced it was setting up a new, beefed-up internal safety function, led by its head of safety and operations, Mark Bly, after the Gulf of Mexico disaster, which resulted in the deaths of 11 workers and in the world's biggest accidental offshore oil spill. An inquiry into the disaster has been launched by the US House of Representatives.

Scott Schloegel, chief of staff for congressman Bart Stupak, who is chairman of the House subcommittee on oversight and investigations, said: "Every time there is a disaster, BP sets up a new programme and says they are going to change the culture within BP.

"The ombudsman's office has been invaluable in allowing whistleblowers to raise issues without fear of reprisal and intimidation. If you do away with the office, you will push these concerns underground, people will not report safety concerns and we will return to the situation before the North Slope spill [from a BP pipeline in Alaska] in 2006."

BP agreed to set up and fund the ombudsman's office after the Baker review into the Texas City refinery explosion, which killed 15 workers. It encourages BP employees and contractors in the US to register concerns over safety or harassment, which are treated in confidence.

Independent of BP, the ombudsman's office is run by Stanley Sporkin, a retired federal judge, with a full-time staff of five and with a budget to hire external contractors to investigate BP's operations.

According to Schloegel, the president of BP America, Lamar McKay, who was appointed last year, is keen to phase out the office and handle all complaints internally.

The company also runs an "employee concerns programme", called OpenTalk, which encourages staff to give their names but preserves anonymity if requested. BP's latest annual report, for 2009, showed that the number of calls to OpenTalk fell by 5% on the previous year, and said that the company was seeking "further improvement" in the programme.

A BP spokesman stressed that the ombudsman's role was never meant to be permanent, adding: "It has always been our intent to internalise the employee concerns process [into the OpenTalk programme], but only at the point in time when we felt the internal processes were sufficiently robust. Until that time the intent has been to keep the ombudsman employee concerns avenue in place."

According to the internal figures, the number of concerns received by the ombudsman's office increased almost fourfold between its inception and last year. Last year alone, the figure was up by two-thirds on 2008. Of the 252 known concerns received in total since 2006, 148 relate to BP's Alaska operations. These include 50 specific safety-related concerns at the North Slope operations.

Schloegel added: "Lamar McKay intimated to us several times that his goal was to phase out the [ombudsman's] office and to have the issues handled internally. He felt that people should have enough trust in the company's internal management structure to be able to come forward and report things to their superiors.

"But if you had a good internal structure where people did not fear intimidation, you would not need the office."

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