Beaumont, Texas—United Steelworkers (USW) Vice President Gary Beevers said at the union’s National Oil Bargaining (NOB) conference that the oil industry’s “run to failure” mentality concerning equipment gets worse every day. He also said that the union will not give up its campaign to have enforceable health and safety language.
“It’s all about money,” said Beevers, who heads the union’s oil sector. “The refiners run the units longer to sell as much product as possible.”
“We see a growing crisis of safety in the oil sector,” said Rafael Moure-Eraso, chair of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, who spoke at the NOB conference. He cited the Gulf rig disaster as well as recent explosions and fires at onshore production, processing, and refining facilities.
Beevers said the industry needs to bring back shorter periods between turnovers, which are times when a refinery is shut down for maintenance.
Moure-Eraso said operators have told him that turnarounds that normally occur every two to three years are happening now every four to five years. They have said that broken equipment is not immediately addressed and workers are told to “work around the problem.”
Companies need to strengthen their mechanical integrity programs so that problems are detected before releases occur, the chairman said.
Moure-Eraso said that CSB investigations of the 2005 Texas City explosion and other refinery disasters highlight additional safety concerns, including job consolidation, decreased staff, operator fatigue, inadequate training, and lack of effective, transparent process safety indicators.
“The industry says it’s managing the risk but in most instances it’s based too narrowly on an individual plant’s history and that creates a false perspective of the risk involved,” said Kim Nibarger, a health and safety specialist with the USW’s health, safety and environment department.
He said an industry-wide, global-based risk assessment is necessary, but the industry says it takes too much time and production has to move forward.
“It’s throw a patch on the line and we’ll fix it during the next turnaround,” Nibarger said.
The American Petroleum Institute (API) has told the media that refiners look at the hazards of delaying maintenance or turnarounds before taking any action. “You are dealing with hazardous materials, and accidents unfortunately happen,” an API spokesperson said.
“We can’t accept the attitude that upsets are bound to happen because of the hazardous nature of the refining process,” Beevers said. “Just imagine if the nuclear industry had this attitude. Where would we be today?
“If refiners paid greater attention to safety instead of production and reinvested more of their profits into their infrastructure instead of buying back their stock, there would be fewer, preventable accidents,” he added.
Beevers said the USW will not back off its health and safety campaign and will continue to bring these issues up through the next round of bargaining in 2012.
“I’m not marching toward 2012 with the intent of having a strike,” Beevers said. “I want to get a comprehensive agreement we all can live with that has enforceable health and safety language so we have recourse if something is not safe.”
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, atomic energy and the service sector. In the oil sector the union represents 30,000 workers.
Contact: Gary Beevers, USW Int'l. Vice President, o) 409-838-1972
Lynne Baker, USW Communications, o) 615-831-6782, c) 615-828-6169