Workers burned at Tesoro refinery; company thwarts federal investigation

The United Steelworkers (USW) demanded that the Tesoro Corporation develop and implement a comprehensive safety plan at its Martinez, California refinery where two workers were recently burned by sulfuric acid.

The workers suffered first and second degree burns on their faces after a pipe in the refinery’s alkylation unit ruptured causing sulfuric acid to be sprayed in the air.

Tesoro has called the accident a minor incident and refuses to allow the US Chemical Safety Board to conduct an investigation into the causes of the accident. It also described the workers’ injuries as minor.

The California Occupational Safety and Health Administration found that the poor condition of the pipes in the alkylation unit where the accident occurred “constitutes an imminent hazard to employees” and ordered the unit to be shut down until the company takes steps to improve safety at the unit.

“Tesoro management trivialized the extent of the workers’ injuries to establish jurisdictional defense specifically to avoid the scrutiny of US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) and other agencies,” said USW International Vice President Gary Beevers, who heads the union’s oil sector. “Management’s platitudes about operating safely have been exposed, as constant downward pressure to produce continues to threaten workers, their communities and the environment.”

According to the Cal OSHA order prohibiting Tesoro from operating the alkylation unit, workers reported that the pipes at the unit leaked badly, that the company had employed a makeshift solution to fix the leaks, and that another operator suffered facial burns in November when he was sprayed with acid from a pipe at the unit.

Workers also said that their complaints about safety at the unit were ignored by the company, that they were afraid of the safety dangers at the unit, and that the company had reduced staffing on the operations that take place when the unit is shut down and restarted.

According to the order, workers had asked Tesoro to provide them with acid jackets, safety equipment that includes face protection, but were told by supervisors that the company didn’t have any.

The two workers burned in the most recent accident were taken to the emergency room at a nearby hospital, treated for their burns, and told not to work for between five to seven days because the environment at the refinery could trigger infections in their burned skin.

After their treatment, both workers received a letter from Tesoro telling them that they had to contact their supervisor or risk losing their jobs.

A few days after the pipe burst, staff from the US Chemical Safety Board arrived on the scene to conduct a routine inquiry to determine the cause of the accident.

When they tried to return for a follow up visit, Tesoro barred them from entering the plant, saying that CSB didn’t have jurisdiction in the matter.

CSB recently issued a draft report on the causes of a 2010 explosion at a Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Washington that killed seven workers. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, that report states that Tesoro’s lax attitude toward safety led to the explosion.

Even though CSB has not been allowed to return to the Martinez refinery, it will continue its investigation. The board has subpoenaed company documents about the operation of the refineries alkylation unit.

The United Steelworkers, which represents workers at the Martinez refinery and oil and chemical workers throughout the US, said that Tesoro doesn’t take safety seriously.

“While the company continues to grow and its market share expands, Tesoro’s corporate culture of safety has steadily diminished,” said Beevers. “Management seeks to reduce the number of union safety positions and has proposed other staffing cuts, including the department where workers were injured last week.”

In another matter, the Contra Costa Times News reports that in January Tesoro agreed to pay $472,000 in civil penalties to settle allegations by the San Francisco Bay Area Air Quality District that the company violated air pollution laws 35 times between 2009 and 2011.

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