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BP to Shutter the Safety Watchdog, Despite Rise in Employee Concerns

BP plans to close the independent watchdog office it established after a deadly refinery blast in Texas City that killed 15 workers, according to The Guardian. Despite a growing number of safety concerns reported to the ombudsman’s office by BP employees and contractors, the company told the U.K. newspaper that it would not extend the office’s tenure past June of next year.

Here’s the Guardian, on the uptick in the reporting of employee concerns since the office was established in 2006:

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.

We’ve reported on some of those operations on the North Slope, including workers who were concerned about faked inspection reports and a persistent pattern of problems. As we noted, a 2004 inquiry into BP’s operation in Alaska had also found that workers operated in a “climate of perceived intimidation and threatened retaliation.”

The decision to shutter the ombudsman’s office comes on the heels of its oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and just weeks after the company announced a new safety division headed by Mark Bly, the chief investigator whose team — with help from BP’s lawyers — produced the company’s account of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

A BP spokesman told the Guardian that the ombudsman’s role was never meant to be permanent. The company currently has a program called OpenTalk that encourages employees to report concerns and allows them to stay anonymous if requested.

Here’s what BP’s 2009 annual report [PDF] said about both the OpenTalk program and the U.S. ombudsman’s office:

Our employee concerns programme, OpenTalk, enables employees to seek guidance on the code of conduct as well as to report suspected breaches of compliance or other concerns. The number of cases raised through OpenTalk in 2009 was 874, compared with 925 in 2008.

In the US, former US district court judge Stanley Sporkin acts as an ombudsperson. Employees and contractors can contact him confidentially to report any suspected breach of compliance, ethics or the code of conduct, including safety concerns.

"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,” the BP spokesman told the Guardian. “Until that time the intent has been to keep the ombudsman employee concerns avenue in place."

In June, a CNN report about the independent safety office quoted a source within the office who said, “I’m surprised we’re still here.” According to that report, Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Michigan, said that the head of BP America, Lamar McKay, told him of plans to shut down the ombudsman’s office. Stupak told CNN he made known to McKay his concerns about doing so.

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