Refinery workers demand safety improvements in new contract

United Steelworkers Union Local 5 members rallied last week at the Chevron headquarters in San Ramon, California demanding that Chevron and other oil companies address workers’ health and safety concerns as the USW and oil companies continue to bargain over a new national pattern setting contract.

The 30,000 oil refinery workers represented by USW made health and safety improvements a priority for the negotiations, which began in January; the current contract expires February 1.

The reason that health and safety are such big issues for refinery workers can be seen 24 miles northwest of San Ramon in the city of Richmond, the home of a Chevron refinery where Local 5 members work and where last November a fire sent one worker to the hospital.  (According to Reuters, oil speculators were relieved that the fire didn’t disrupt production and cause oil prices to drastically fluctuate.)

The Richmond fire was one of more than 130 refinery fires at US refineries since 2009 when oil companies refused to include comprehensive safety measures in the current national pattern agreement.

Since then, 18 US oil refinery workers have perished in on-the-job accidents, including five who died in a 2010 fire and explosion at a Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Washington. Dozens more have suffered catastrophic injuries, and many others have sustained serious injuries or debilitating health conditions because of their work.

The danger isn’t confined to refinery workers. People living in communities like Richmond are at risk too. The danger is so acute that Richmond has 17 alarm sirens to warn residents of toxic chemical releases from place like the Chevron refinery where in 2007 a fire sent sulfur dioxide, a poisonous gas also found in erupting volcanoes, spewing into the atmosphere. The accident resulted in local officials issuing a warning for residents to stay inside. The warning lasted three hours.

“When these companies operate oil refineries unsafely, everybody’s at risk,” said BK White, Local 5 unit chairman. “We know that a serious explosion at one of these facilities could devastate an entire community.”

The demonstration at the Chevron headquarters was one of the actions that USW members took last week in 20 communities in California, Illinois, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Utah to raise public awareness of their fight for safety at the nation’s refineries.

Union members want their new contract to include language that gives them the right to stop unsafe work, ensures safe staffing levels, provides for timely inspection and maintenance of equipment, and authorizes union safety representatives to work with companies to spot and reduce hazards.

Including these and other safety measures in the contract wouldn’t cost oil companies much in terms of dollars and cents; nor would it increase the cost of gasoline because work at refineries accounts for only a small portion of the cost of gasoline, about three cents a gallon, according to USW.

But including the safety demands in the contract would cost the company something in terms of their complete control of the production process, which they seem reluctant to give up even if doing so might improve safety for workers and the surrounding community.

But USW members appear to be determined to gain some control over working conditions that affect their health, safety, and their very lives. “We must have meaningful and enforceable safety provisions if we are going to save lives, and we are prepared to strike if necessary,” said Gary Beevers, USW international vice-president, who heads the union’s oil bargaining program.

We think a fight is senseless, extremely unnecessary and it’ll hurt everybody involved. All it would take to avoid a strike would be for the industry to say, ‘Yes, we agree with you about the seriousness of this situation. We want to partner with you to make these facilities safer,'” Beevers said.

“I’ve been to a lot of memorial services in my career, but I’ve never been to one for a CEO,” he added.

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