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Incidents: Valdez



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Exxon-Valdez oil spill
The Exxon Valdez left the Valdez oil terminal in Alaska on March 23, 1989; she was bound for Long Beach, California. The ship was under the command of Joseph Hazelwood.

The Event

The outbound shipping lane was obstructed with icebergs, so permission was obtained from the Coast Guard to go out through the inbound lane. The ship was on autopilot. She struck Bligh Reef at around 12:04 a.m. March 24, 1989. 

A critical piece of navigation equipment, the sonar, had been out of service for many months. Had it been in operation it is likely that the submerged reef that the ship hit would have been observed and avoided.

It was widely reported that the captain of the ship was intoxicated. He had been drinking earlier, but, at the time of the accident, was asleep in his cabin.


In response to the spill, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA). The legislation included a clause that prohibits any vessel that, after March 22, 1989, has caused an oil spill of more than one million U.S. gallons (3,800 m³) in any marine area, from operating in Prince William Sound.

The OPA also set a schedule for the gradual phase in of a double hull design, providing an additional layer between the oil tanks and the ocean. While a double hull would likely not have prevented the Valdez disaster (in fact, some of the leaking tanks were already within a double hull structure), a Coast Guard study estimated that it would have cut the amount of oil spilled by 60 percent. All tankers at Valdez are to be double-hulled by 2015.

Elements of Safety Management

Each of the incidents discussed in this section of the site are analyzed in terms of Inherent Safety, Process Safety and Health and Human Factors. Those judged as being particularly relevant to the Bhopal event are highlighted.

Inherent Safety

  1. Eliminate
  2. Substitute
  3. Minimize
  4. Moderate
  5. Simplify

The above factors did not play a key role in this event.

Process Safety

  1. Culture
  2. Compliance
  3. Competence
  4. Workforce Involvement
  5. Stakeholder Outreach
  6. Knowledge Management
  7. Hazard Identification and Risk Management
  8. Operating Procedures
  9. Safe Work Practices
  10. Asset Integrity / Reliability
  11. Contractor Management
  12. Training / Performance
  13. Management of Change
  14. Operational Readiness
  15. Conduct of Operations
  16. Emergency Management
  17. Incident Investigation
  18. Measurement and Metrics
  19. Auditing
  20. Management Review


The event caused Exxon management to question their entire safety culture. As the Blackbeard incident of 2005 showed, their efforts to create change were largely successful.

Asset Integrity

The failure of a key piece of navigation equipment, and the decision to sail anyway, was a major contributing factor.

Health and Human Factors

The fact that the captain of the ship was inebriated prior to the accident received a good deal of publicity. However, Exxon management realized that this issues was not fundamental - as already noted, a complete shake-up of the company culture was needed.

Long-Term Consequences

One of the most important consequences of this event was that Exxon conducted a company-wide, in-depth review of all its safety management practices. The results of this review could be seen in the 2006 Blackbeard event.

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