Marching behind a banner reading “Safe Refineries Save Lives,” more than 300 striking oil refinery workers on March 6 marched through the streets of downtown Houston.
Their destination was Shell Oil’s Houston headquarters on Louisiana Street. When they arrived, they surged onto the steps leading up to the main entrance and tried to enter the building.
Houston Police Officers intercepted them. After a discussion between the police and the strikers, the strikers returned to the sidewalks where they chanted, “What do we want? A fair contract. When do we want it? Now.”
The workers are seeking a new collective bargaining agreement that includes commonsense and enforceable safety improvements that will make refineries less dangerous for workers and people who live nearby.
“We have good jobs, but we want to come home safe,” said Lee Medley, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 13-1 to KHOU News.
Workers are not the only ones to raise concerns about safety at US refineries. The US Chemical Safety Board, which investigates refinery accidents, has identified the absence of a corporate culture of safety as a key factor in recent explosions and fires at US refineries.
Local 13-1 and other USW locals have been on strike since February 1 at 15 oil refineries and related facilities in the US.
The strike began after negotiations between USW and Shell Oil Company over a National Oil Bargaining Pattern Agreement broke down.
USW’s membership includes 30,000 workers at 65 oil refineries and related facilities in the US.
Shell represents Big Oil in the negotiations, which will establish a pattern for wages, benefits, and safety conditions at all refineries where USW members work.
Besides Shell, workers are striking facilities owned by Tesoro, BP, Marathon, and Husky Energy.
On the same day that USW members were demonstrating at Shell, hundreds more were demonstrating at the Marathon refinery in Texas City, about 40 miles southeast of Houston.
The Texas City Marathon refinery is the site of a 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers, injured 180 more, and caused an emergency warning to be issued to nearby residents.
At the time of the explosion, the refinery was owned by BP.
The US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) reported that a lack of a “serious safety culture” kept BP from taking action that could have prevented the explosion.
CSB also said that worker fatigue, a major safety hazard that USW is seeking to address in its contract negotiations, also contributed to the explosion.
Another explosion that killed seven workers occurred in 2010 at a Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Washington.
The CSB report on the explosion cites the lack of safety culture as a major cause of the blast. According to the report, “Refinery management had normalized the occurrences of hazardous conditions.”
In 2012, a major fire broke at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California. Luckily no one was killed, but six workers were injured and a level three safety warning was issued to nearby residents.
A noxious vapor resulting from the fire caused 15,000 people in nearby towns to seek treatment at hospitals for respiratory problems.
Once again the CSB report on the fire cited the lack of a corporate safety culture as a major cause of the fire.
Among other things, the report found that workers were reluctant to use their Stop Work authority when they discovered serious safety problems because they feared retribution by management.
This year, there have been three explosions at oil refineries.
The most recent took place on February 18 at the Exxon Mobile refinery in Torrance, California.
The explosion registered as a magnitude of a 1.4 earthquake, writes Antonia Juhasz in the Los Angeles Times and sent an irritating dust into the nearby community.
The Torrance explosion is according to Juhasz, “the latest reminder of the very real dangers petroleum refineries and terminals pose for their workers, their neighbors, the air we breathe, and the climate we share.”
Furthermore, writes Juhasz, “For nearly a decade, the industry’s leading watchdogs have warned that American refineries are operating with shocking disregard for known risks and are failing to adhere to existing regulations, which are also dangerously insufficient.”
Negotiations between Shell and USW resume on March 9. In a message to members, USW negotiators said that they are hopeful that the five-week old strike will convince Shell to listen to the workers’ safety concerns with an open mind.
In a message to the public, USW said, “We’re fighting for life-saving improvements to address fatigue and other commonsense measures to make oil refineries and chemical plants safer,” and urged people to sign its petition of support.