The United Steel Workers (USW) union announced Tuesday an attempt to reopen safety negotiations with the oil industry as tempers rage over a string of deadly explosions at oil refineries in recent months. Shell Oil, the industry leader that represents oil interests in pattern negotiations with the USW, said the industry wasn’t interested, according to the USW.
USW Vice President Gary Beevers, head of the union’s oil sector, formally asked oil industry representatives to reopen safety negotiations involved in the National Oil Bargaining (NOB) pattern. During an emergency meeting in June with United Mine Workers of America, Beevers said the USW was forced to withdraw from health and safety negotiations last year “when it became clear the corporations had no intention of talking seriously about safety.”
The USW called the April and May a “tragic” time for the oil industry, which saw 13 fires, 25 injuries and 19 deaths of workers in oil refineries, including the 11 victims of the Deepwater Horizon disaster off the gulf coast.
On April 2, an explosion and fire at a Tesoro Corp. refinery in Anacortes, Alaska, left seven workers dead. A total of 40 injuries and deaths have occurred this spring in oil refineries and workplaces across the country, according to the USW, and 18 fires and explosions at refineries have been reported in 2010 alone. In 2009, there were 46 fires and explosions at refineries.
USW communications officer Lynne Baker told Truthout the NOB health and safety negotiations were dropped in 2009 in favor of economic and benefits issues. Baker said Shell officials were willing to meet and talk with USW, but were not interested in reopening negotiations on a binding agreement on safety issues in refineries despite widespread concern over a industrywide pattern of safety violations and deadly accidents that have occurred in recent years.
Charles Drevna, president of the industry lobby National Petrochemical and Refiners Association, highlighted his industry’s sentiments toward union demands while testifying before Congress last month.
“We believe that the best way to improve safety in our industry is to work in cooperation – rather than confrontation – with all stakeholders: OSHA, the Chemical Safety Board, labor unions, contractors and Congress,” Drevna said. “Issuing dueling press releases, denouncing each other for the TV cameras and in expensive ads, and using inflammatory rhetoric to score political points won’t accomplish our common goals and, if anything, will only serve to make the task even harder.”
“We are more than happy to cooperate with the industry on workplace safety and think we can do that with bargaining,” Baker said. “Having a contract makes both parties accountable for health and safety. Promises alone do not work. Letting the industry set its own safety standards on a voluntary basis does not work. If it did, we would not be seeing any more deaths and injuries.”
USW pledged to work with federal regulators and Congress if the industry refuses to negotiate a binding agreement.
Baker could not say where the union might find support in Congress, but the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has responded to the situation.
OSHA recently reported troubling results of an industrywide inspection of work safety programs in oil refineries in the wake of the 2005 explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery that killed 15 workers.
“Not only are we finding a significant lack of compliance during our inspections, but time and again, our inspectors are finding the same violations in multiple refineries, including those with common ownership, and sometimes even in different units in the same refinery,” OSHA Deputy Assistant Secretary Jordan Barab told Congress last month. “This is a clear indication that essential safety lessons are not being communicated within the industry, and often not even within a single corporation or facility…. So we are particularly disturbed to find even refineries that have already suffered serious incidents or received major OSHA citations making the same mistakes again.”
Barab cited the Texas City refinery, which received hundreds of “willful” citations in the years following the blowout, as a prime example of this trend.
On June 18, OSHA instituted the Severe Violator Enforcement Program, which concentrates resources on employers who have “demonstrated indifference” by committing willful or repeated violations. The program has an emphasis on “high-emphasis hazards,” which includes hazards at oil refineries among other types.