SIMPLY known as "Fawley", the oil refinery has been a landmark on the western shore of Southampton Water for 87 years and generations of Hampshire residents have spent their working lives at the giant plant.

For residents living on the edge of the New Forest and across the water at Hamble and Netley, the main cause for concern has been the occasional chemical-like smell, depending on the direction the wind blows.

Which is why the exclusive Daily Echo report on a damning health and safety investigation into Britain's biggest refinery - which processes 300,000 barrels of crude oil a day - has come as such a shock.

The leaked Health and Safety Executive (HSE) report revealed workers' fears that a major accident could occur at Fawley because of ageing infrastructure, poor maintenance, under-reporting of incidents and a workplace "blame culture".

Site owners Esso and ExxonMobil were quick to reject claims that Fawley was unsafe and said the refinery was the safest in the country. However, ramifications have been felt as far away as Texas, the home of parent company Exxon Mobil - which was last year ranked the world's most profitable company.

Business reporters in Dallas told the Echo they were surprised the findings were ever made public, describing Exxon Mobil as "a fortress".

Information leaks from the petroleum giant - which makes a staggering £2.5m per hour - are largely unheard of in the States and its business practices are a closely guarded secret.

Jen Parker, from the powerful union UNITE, which represents 300 Fawley employees, said a reason for this was that workers at Exxon Mobil's American refineries were not unionised.

Click here to read the full safety report into Fawley

Ms Parker said UNITE had only won recognition at Fawley after a lengthy battle last year, while Bob Stokes, from GMB, said his union's relationship with Esso and ExxonMobil had diminished in recent years.

While the HSE report largely focused on workers' anger at poor morale and what they see as inadequate staffing levels, endemic overtime and ad hoc training, there was also a fear among some that cost-cutting had made the site dangerous.

There was even an expectation that a major accident would occur and one worker told inspectors that they "would not bat an eyelid if the refinery blew up".

Mr Stokes, a former Fawley employee, echoed these concerns: "Not only have I worked there but I also live close to the site.

If there were to be a major disaster in there, the consequences could be tremendous for the surrounding area."

The 2005 Buncefield oil depot disaster in Hertfordshire, the largest fire in Europe since the Second World War, has prompted refinery operators and local authorities across the country to rewrite their emergency plans.

The scale of the blaze - caused when a tank of petrol overflowed, forming a vapour cloud that then exploded - was far greater than any worst-scenario predictions.

Ron Goddard, emergency planning officer from Hampshire County Council, said the Fawley off-site emergency plan was in the process of being rewritten and was likely to take into consideration a greater area surrounding Fawley which could be affected by a major accident.

Councillor Michael Wade, chairman of New Forest District Council's environmental protection liaison committee, said Esso and ExxonMobil had always "come across as a professional outfit" who "care about the environment and the place they operate in", and was shocked to learn that some workers thought the plant was unsafe.

"It's all new to us," he said. "We only learned about it in the Daily Echo. We had no idea that there are any of those issues there.

"That's not something we've seen personally on our visits to the site in the couple of times I've been there, and nobody has ever talked about it before because it's not been raised as an issue.

"Now that it's been raised as an issue they are really duty-bound to answer it.

"If there were a major explosion there would be an element (of residents) affected in the ward I represent. Let's hope that never happens."

New Forest District Council leader Mel Kendal said the findings should not be "cause for alarm", but said the situation would be closely monitored by the council's environmental health officers.

"We know that they have a good safety record and that they are a good employer.

Nevertheless, we want to make sure that their lines of communication are open for their employees who feel that there are matters of concern," he said.

The HSE has given refinery bosses until June 3 to draw up an action plan addressing their workers' concerns.