Dave Leining died last week when his private plane crashed in the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge south of Houston. He was 63.
I didn’t know him well. In fact, we only met in person once, when I interviewed him for my book, Drowning in Oil. But I’ve found myself thinking about that interview a lot since I first heard of his death. We sat in an office in the back of his archery shop in Santa Fe, Texas, south of Houston, as he recounted in painstaking detail his story of surviving BP’s 2005 Texas City refinery disaster and his year-long recovery from injuries he suffered that day.
I interviewed a lot of people for the book, and I had a lot of discussions about safety, but something that Leining said stood out. Speaking of the refinery, he said: “It’s a dangerous place to work, but it shouldn’t be a hazardous place to work.”
I think of that comment every time someone tries to dismiss an industrial accident as inevitable. After the Texas City refinery explosion, dozens of people in the industry told me something to the effect that “refineries are dangerous; accidents happen.” Leining’s point was that yes, refineries are inherently dangerous. But companies that don’t take the proper steps to reduce risk make them unnecessarily hazardous, too, and put workers’ lives in jeopardy as a result. Companies that operate dangerous work places have a responsibility to make safety paramount.
Leining had been in a temporary trailer, chatting in his boss’s office, when a nearby isom unit at the refinery exploded on March 23, 2005.
The blast flattened the trailer, pinning Leining under piles of debris. He was one of the lucky ones that day. He survived, although he had two broken ankles and would take almost a year to walk again. Many of his co-workers who were in the same trailer that day were killed.
In all, 15 people died in the blast and more than 170 were seriously injured.
When he had recovered, Leining returned to the refinery. It was, as they say, in his blood. His father had worked at the plant, and so had other members of his family. His wife worked there at the time of the explosion.
Leining returned because he thought he could make a difference. He wanted to help institute the changes in safety procedures to which BP said it was committed. After a few months, he quit in frustration over what he described as a dispute about some of those safety procedures.
Lening gave numerous interviews in 2010, both to mark the fifth anniversary of the refinery disaster and then, a month later, in the aftermath of BP’s Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. He didn’t do it for the attention. He did it because he knew that over time, we tend to forget the human toll of industrial accidents. And he did it because he knew that without people like him to tell his stories, change is far less likely to come to unsafe work places. He got a painful reminder of that fact two years after the explosion that almost killed him, when his cousin, Richard Leining, died in another accident at the same refinery.
Dave Leining always said he shouldn’t have survived the accident. The fact that he did, and that he was willing to talk about it, provided an important perspective on process safety. It’s true that refineries will always be dangerous places, but Dave Leining knew that there was no excuse for allowing them to be hazardous, too.