INSIGHT: Refinery union tackles rules blaming workers for upsets

15 February 2011 15:45  [Source: ICIS news]

By Sheena Martin

HOUSTON (ICIS)--Union members have been used as scapegoats for refinery accidents and near misses, receiving unfair penalties under recently adapted refining safety rules, union sources say. A refining union will address in its upcoming contract negotiations a set of safety rules that it says relies on blame and punishment for enforcement.

The latest set of safety rules used by refiners in the US are commonly known as Life Saving Rules and have been in place since October 2010.

But unionised labour does not like the way the onus for safer working has shifted and is put more strongly upon individual workers.

“The industry does not like heat on them,” one union worker says. “[The Life Saving Rules] put all the focus on the employee and their compliance versus the company’s compliance.”

Refining companies say the rules are adaptations in the ongoing progress made in health and safety management over many years. Safety is their number one priority, they say, and they continually review safety policies. The focus on safe working has increased significantly since the explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery in Texas in 2005.

But refiners will not address, in requests for clarification, specific situations where workers have been punished nor any of the union's issues in regards to the latest set of safety rules. The next contract negotiations for the industry are in January 2012, and refinery workers are already gearing up with a health and safety campaign.

“[These rules] are a direct relation to our campaign,” a Valero union worker says.

The most recently adopted set of safety rules will be addressed in the 2012 negotiations. However, if changes are not made in the nationwide contract, there is no chance of adoption at the local refinery level. 

The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) increased its role in reviewing refinery safety in 2008 but the administration has since cut back reviews because of a shortage of inspectors. In any case, the OSHA does not usually review refinery health and safety policies.

Under the October 2010 rules, workers have been required to fill out a permit concerning job safety analysis and compliance issues. This means that employees at the refinery have to determine the hazards in their working area and submit the risks assessment to the refinery.

“When we [identify hazards], we’re supposed to have operators, engineers, mechanics - everybody involved,” the Valero union member says. “If I go out there and I see something then I am in trouble. If I get hurt from something I didn’t point out then it’s my fault.”

The larger issue is not that fault is placed on the refinery worker instead of the company, but with the punishments imposed on workers when an accident or incident occurs.

Retribution from verbal warnings to suspensions without pay to firings has made workers reluctant to report safety problems or incidents.

“We only find out about the near-miss or actual incidents that go unreported days or weeks after they occur,” Eric Hamilton, the president of the union council for Shell/Motiva, says.

He says the unreported incidents get around by word of mouth with a lot of details left out, and suggests that the suppression of reporting issues is a common occurrence. 

The Valero worker says: “We know if we turn in the problem [to management] we get punished for it. So this improves the refinery’s safety records, but not actual safety.”

Though refineries have had varying levels of safety rules, the Life Saving Rules put more emphasis and greater penalties on the worker, the union worker says.

United Steelworkers (USW) spokeswoman Lynne Baker says: “Anything [that] puts compliance back on workers doesn’t do anything to get rid of the hazards, and our union is all about trying to find the hazards and fix the situation.” 

According to the Valero union member, a maintenance crew in 2010 at Valero’s Port Arthur refinery in Texas had to cut out a piece of pipe. Usually a cherry-picker - a construction vehicle equipped with an arm than can carry and place heavy objects - is used to move the pipe. However, operational problems forced the crew to substitute a forklift for picking up the pipe.

When the piece of pipe came loose, it rolled and pinched a worker’s hand between the pipe and a hand rail. The injury required stitches.

After the incident, the team learned it should not have used the forklift. The team members received verbal or written warnings, and the injured worker was reportedly put on suspension pending an investigation, according to the union member.

Valero spokesman Bill Day said he would not comment on possible injuries of workers for privacy reasons. Also, the company does not discuss individual employee issues.

Hamilton says: “It is in my opinion a case of a good idea gone bad."

"It is also a case of corporate unwillingness and stubbornness. They are unwilling to admit they might have made an error,” he adds.

Refining companies, however, said they are continually updating and reviewing safety procedures as that is their number one priority.

“[The Life Saving Rules] represent a heightened emphasis on employee safety,” Day says. “There is no change to Valero’s philosophy that the safety of our employees and our communities is our number one priority.”

A Sunoco spokesman said nearly the same. “The [Life Saving Rules] are common-sense rules based on data regarding the cause of injuries and fatalities in our industry,” said Thomas Golembeski at the company. “We require full compliance with these rules to protect employees and contractors.”

Similar safety policies and punishments have so far been implemented at Motiva, Valero and Chevron Phillips.

ExxonMobil’s policy is called “Nobody Gets Hurt,” spokesman Kevin Allexon said.

“Safety is a core value for our company, and we are committed to continuous improvement,” Allexon said.

“As part of out Operations Integrity Management System (OIMS) process, our standards are reviewed and enhanced, where warranted, as new data becomes available as part of our commitment to safety and continuous improvement.”

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By: Sheena Martin
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