Oil Strike Is About Lives Of Workers
We don’t want to be exposed to potentially fatal hazards unnecessarily. That’s why we’ve organised the largest strike since 1980 to demand worker safety
Artist rendering of USW member Charles Wharton carrying a critically injured co-worker to safety after the 2009 explosion at the CITGO refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas. Photograph: Frederick H. Carlson./United Steelworkers
In an oil refinery, like the one where I work, stuff leaks all the time.
Sometimes dripped oil just makes a black spot on the ground. Sometimes 500-degree gas flows out, ignites and explodes.
These powerful blasts can maim and kill. I’ve seen it. The first time was in 1998, four years after I started work at a refinery in Anacortes, which was first owned by Shell but later became Tesoro. It happened at the adjacent refinery, owned at that time by Equilon. An explosion killed six workers. For a lot of us, that was our first experience with a refinery catastrophe with multiple fatalities. It shocked you to the core.
Then, five years ago, at my refinery, a massive explosion killed seven of my friends. The United Steelworkers, which represents 30,000 refinery workers in collective bargaining, tracks workplace deaths. It reports that 27 workers died at refineries in the past five years – more than five a year.
That’s intolerable. And it’s a big part of the reason that 5,000 USW oil and chemical workers, including me, are on unfair labor practice strikes nationwide. We believe not enough is being done to prevent our co-workers from leaving refineries and chemical plants in body bags. None of us wants to be the next to lose his or her life for no good reason.
After both of the Anacortes disasters, as well as a blast at BP in Texas City in 2005 that killed 15 and injured 180, regulators cited lax safety standards at the refineries as a problem. It’s frustrating. We know the refineries aren’t doing enough. At Tesoro, the explosion in 2010 didn’t come as a real surprise. The equipment that failed had a history of leaks and fires.
We had all seen close calls, including me. I once helped disperse a volatile cloud of propane that jetted out of a broken pipe. That was about 18 years ago, a few years after I began work at the refinery.
I was with four other operators in the control house when we heard a pop and a hiss. We knew a pipe had let go. It was a little after 5 a.m. and dark, but you could see a cloud forming out front, blowing and swirling. We thought it was steam until we got outside and smelled the propane.
A pea soup-thick fog of propane was forming, maybe 20 to 30 yards across. Not 60 feet away was a giant furnace heated by 12-inch open flame gas burners. Propane was being drawn into that furnace.
Some of the guys ran to shut off valves to stop the flow of propane. I grabbed a steam lance to try to disperse the explosive cloud. I was thinking, “This is crazy! What are we doing here?”
Every now and then I caught a glimpse through the dense vapor of another of my crew members, and I thought, “Well, if today is my day, I will not be alone.”
We shut the valves, diffused the propane and escaped with our lives because it never ignited. We were lucky and we knew it.
Investigators determined that the break resulted from a weakness in a particular type of threaded connection. They recommended that the company establish a database listing the weak areas and train workers about the issue. The company didn’t finish that until after another problem.
In that case, a threaded connection led to a leak in asphalt making equipment. Hot asphalt ignited, and burned part of the process unit, making it unusable. On four occasions in the 21 years I have worked there, breaks and other problems unleashed dangerous propane clouds.
After I helped to disperse the propane, supervisors thanked us and said “good job” and bought us apple and cherry pies. For preventing a massive explosion.
When someone suggested we deserved exceptional achievement cash awards, a supervisor said, “We don’t reward you for doing your jobs. We bought you pie.”
We don’t want to be exposed to potentially fatal hazards unnecessarily. We want safety improved. Pie for risking my life to resolve a problem that could have been prevented shows how little refineries value the lives of their workers.