An oil refinery is a dangerous place to work. According to the United Steelworkers, which represents 30,000 oil industry workers, there have been 138 fires at US oil refineries between February 2009 and November 2011 that the union is aware of.
Living near an oil refinery is also a dangerous place to live.The Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a community organization fighting to make neighborhoods located near refineries pollution free, says that in Louisiana alone there were 354 refinery accidents reported to the state during 2010. Some created health risks to workers inside the refinery and to those living nearby.
Recently, members of the United Steelworkers voted overwhelmingly for a national oil bargaining policy that makes improving refinery health and safety a priority for contract negotiations with the oil industry that begin in January.
“I think that it’s well about time that one of the richest industries on the planet invest in occupational health and safety and environmental safety and we intend to have that battle with them,” said Leo Gerard, USW president.
The oil industry has been reluctant to bargain over health and safety standards that can be enforced and in fact wants to abolish health and safety regulations that apply to refineries. As justification, industry representatives say that oil refineries have a low rate of on-the-job accidents.
But union officials say that the low accident rate is misleading because the industry’s lax safety culture has led to well-documented catastrophes that have cost lives, injured workers, and put communities on edge. Refinery workers are eight times more likely to die on the job than workers in other industries.
Refinery fires in the last three years caused 18 deaths, and refinery workers still remember the horrific fire at the BP refinery in Texas City, Texas that killed 15 workers and injured 170 others in 2005. Five years later, the same BP plant illegally emitted 17,000 pounds of cancer causing benzene into the air putting the surrounding community at risk.
“When things go bad in a refinery, they go really bad and people die,” said USW Health and Safety Specialist Kim Nibarger at a special briefing for Congress members and staff . “Focusing on personal safety—the wearing of hard hats and safety glasses, slips, trips and falls—says nothing about how safe a refinery is for workers and the surrounding community. BP had a low personal injury rate at its refineries, but the 2005 explosion and fire at its Texas City plant showed it failed miserably in terms of process safety.”
Process safety includes maintaining equipment reliability, containing discharges into the air, preventative maintenance, inspection, and testing. Union workers complain that oil companies are spending less on process safety even as their profits climb.
“Typically, they run the equipment longer than they should because the potential for catastrophic failure although it exists is not high enough in their estimation to require it to be shut down and fixed or maintained,” said Erica Kent a USW Local 675 member.
Vessels at refineries boil oil at extreme heat, and to do this safely requires a lot of safety checks. It also requires that some of these units be shut down and overhauled regularly, said Gary Beevers, USW vice-president for oil bargaining. “When I was an operator at a refinery many years ago, usually there were scheduled turnarounds (shutdown for full maintenance) every three years. That went to four, then five years, and now in some cases it’s six years,” Beevers said.
Beevers also said that the lack of concern for process safety is a concern for people living near refineries. “For years we never had releases of hydrofluoride at these refineries, but now you have HF alkylation units that are 60 years old, 50 years, or 40 years old and they’re extending the turnaround time of these units.” Hydrofluoride is a deadly gas and a pin hole leak from a pipe containing it “could kill an entre community,” Beevers said.
The safety situation at refineries has become so dire that USW and its members think that they must win enforceable safety standards at the bargaining table. “Health and safety is going to be major strike issue,” Beevers said. “(They’re) going to stop killing people or we’re going to withhold our work.”