·  USW

USW Officials Detail Oil Health & Safety Problems to Congress

Health & Safety to be Number One Issue in National Bargaining Talks

Lynne B. Hancock, USW, 615.831.6782/ 615.828.6169, lbaker@usw.org
Gary Hubbard, USW, 202.778.4384/ 202.256.8125, ghubbard@usw.org

Washington, D.C. (Nov. 29)—United Steelworkers (USW) officials briefed congressional members and staff today about health and safety problems in the oil industry and how they will impact National Oil Bargaining talks which are scheduled to heat up in January.

USW Health and Safety Specialist Kim Nibarger outlined five fatal flaws at the briefing on where the oil industry needs to improve its health and safety record: process safety, mechanical integrity, management of change, incident investigation and control room alarms and instrumentation.

“When things go bad in a refinery, they go really bad and people die,” he told the briefing. “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. Fifteen people were killed and 170 were injured in the 2005 accident as a result of this failure.”

Process safety does not focus on the individual. Instead, attention is paid to the worksite: equipment reliability, discharges into the air and ground, preventative maintenance, and inspection and testing. Nibarger discussed accidents that happened in recent years and how each oil company failed to comply with process safety management standards.

“The oil companies are playing Russian roulette with their equipment,” Nibarger said. “They are doing quick, stopgap fixes, like placing clamps on pipes instead of replacing the pipe. They’re extending the time between unit shutdowns when all the equipment is checked. When there is a shutdown they’re not always repairing or replacing critical equipment. When they do repair equipment they’re not bringing it up to current RAGAGEP (Recognized and Generally Accepted Good Engineering Practices) standards.”

Nibarger said that when the companies do a Management of Change (MOC) assessment the questions they ask are to justify the change they want to make, not to examine what could go wrong if the change is made.

Companies also are failing to heed their own recommendations when they do an investigation of an incident. Nibarger cited several examples of this happening. In 1997, after an accident at the Tosco refinery in Avon, Calif., injured 44 people, the industry learned that locating trailers near a live process unit was a poor practice. Yet, the industry ignored the lesson and the result was disastrous. Eight years later, 15 workers died at BP’s Texas City refinery because they were in a trailer that was placed too close to an active unit that exploded.

The oil industry’s handling of control room alarms and instrumentation is also a problem. Nibarger said technology helps the units run evenly, but if something goes wrong the operators get pages of alarm messages and do not know which alarm is a priority. He said they get overloaded with information instead of guidance on doing the right thing immediately.

These problems raise serious concerns about what the oil industry is doing to safeguard workers and communities from preventable catastrophic events. At a time when the industry is pushing for elimination of existing regulations, it’s urgent that careful consideration be given to the real costs, in lost lives and production, when companies are allowed to regulate themselves.

When talks between the oil industry and USW heat up in January, health and safety will be the number one issue and the “five fatal flaws” will be discussed, said Jim Lefton, who was also at the congressional briefing and is an assistant to USW Vice President Gary Beevers, who heads the National Oil Bargaining Program.

“Since our last round of bargaining in 2009 we have seen 25 fatalities and 175 fires that have been reported by the industry. We have seen seven of our brothers and sisters die needlessly in an explosion at Anacortes, Wash., over a maintenance issue that the industry has known about for 30 years—high temperature hydrogen attack,” Lefton said.

“We have spent the last three years imploring this industry to address the issues we have raised in our proposal…but alas it has been to no avail.

“It is now time to address these issues in the realm of collective bargaining. It is our hope that we will be successful. If not, we are prepared to do what is necessary to protect our members from death and injury at the hands of this industry,” Lefton told the briefing.

The National Oil Bargaining pattern agreement expires Feb. 1 at 12:01 a.m.

The USW represents 30,000 workers at 168 production, refining, marketing, transportation, pipeline and petrochemical facilities nationwide, including 69 refineries representing approximately 64 percent of US refining capacity.

Overall, the USW is the largest industrial union in North America and has 850,000 members in the U.S., Canada, and the Caribbean. It represents workers employed in metals, rubber, chemicals, paper, oil refining, renewable and atomic energy, plus the service sector.


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