Union Seeks Plant Safety Reforms | Chemical & Engineering News
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Issue Date: December 5, 2007

Union Seeks Plant Safety Reforms

Conditions that led to fatal BP accident remain at many facilities, survey finds
Department: Business
Credit: USW (both)
Credit: USW (both)

Nearly all of 51 large oil and petrochemical refineries in the U.S. have not adequately addressed one or more of Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) recommendations on plant safety, according to the results of a survey of refinery workers released during a telephone press conference on Nov. 30.

The survey was conducted by the United Steelworkers (USW) union, which represents more than 30,000 oil and petrochemical workers. Union officials vowed political action and difficult bargaining negotiations with refiners if companies don't improve worker safety at refineries.

USW's survey found that these oil refineries, which account for half of all U.S. refining capacity, have failed to make modifications of potentially dangerous conditions revealed by CSB's investigation of the March 2005 BP refinery accident in Texas City, Texas. The accident was one of the industry's worst, killing 15 workers and injuring 180 others.

"Apparently [the BP] incident did not make enough of an impression on refiners, because they continue to not heed the lessons learned from the explosions, fires, and other incidents plaguing our industry," said Leo W. Gerard, USW International president.

The union survey queried workers particularly about practices that led to the BP accident or increased its fatalities. These included locating office trailers in production areas, atmospheric venting of process unit overflows, allowing nonessential workers to be in high-risk areas during startups and shutdowns, poor process-safety management, and worker fatigue. CSB urged the American Petroleum Institute to modify its industrywide voluntary guidelines to reflect its recommendations and in some cases to work with USW on improvements (C&EN, Nov. 13, 2006, page 31).

Gerard said he was "particularly disturbed" with API.

"API has avoided us and has come up with baloney," he said. "If they keep stonewalling, it is our intention to make this a legislative issue, and every presidential candidate will get a copy of our report. We can have loud voices on these kinds of issues."

At the press conference, USW International Vice President Gary Beevers also urged more robust negotiations with API but warned that without movement, "I can foresee issues at the bargaining table that none of us are going to like." USW and companies conduct industrywide bargaining, which will begin late next year.

In response to USW comments, Ron Chittim, API senior refining analyst, said API completed a new guideline on trailer site locations in June and is waiting for CSB's review. Also, API is working on a new guideline for atmospheric overflow vents, which, he said, is nearly complete. The trade association also intends to begin discussions with USW soon to develop better measures of plant process safety management and a new standard to prevent worker fatigue. Chittim noted, however, that often as long as two years is needed to modify and approve safety guidelines.

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