Five years ago, seven workers were killed in an explosion at the Tesoro oil refinery in Anacortes, Wash., triggered by a faulty heat exchanger.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board has since determined that the incident was preventable, caused by “a deficient refinery safety culture, weak industry standards for safeguarding equipment, and a regulatory that too often emphasizes activities rather than outcomes.” For its role in jeopardizing the workers’ lives, Tesoro was fined a mere $685,000.
The vivid memory of this incident is partly what drives workers to a strike picket line outside the refinery on a sunny February Sunday morning. Pierce Hoover, who has worked at the Tesoro plant for nine years, remembers the deceased: Daniel Aldridge, Matt Bowen, Matt Gumbel, Darrin Hoines, Lew Janz, Kathryn Powell and Donna Van Dreumel.
“Those were our friends, just like how we are friends here,” he said.
Hoover’s friend, Matt Moothart, an operator in the same unit where the explosion took place, was supposed to work that fateful night in April 2010. A cold prompted him to call in sick.
“What happened here five years ago was a wake up-call,” Moothart said, standing on the picket line. “We are fighting for safety standards.”
“The safety standards at this plant are reactive, not proactive.”
Since Feb. 1, the 200 Tesoro workers represented by the United Steel Workers (USW) have joined 6,500 others in 15 oil refineries around the country to demand safe conditions and staffing ratios in their workplaces.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics report 26 and 12 fatalities in the oil refinery industry for years 2012 and 2013, respectively. This removes the industry from the list of most dangerous jobs. These statistics are contested, however, due to the Bureau’s inclusion of only full-time employees and unwillingness to include contractor injuries or deaths in their reporting.
Weak industry standards leave no clear mandate on the conditions needed for a plant to operate safely, such as a policy of specific staffing ratios. Workers point to a culture where management demands excessive overtime. Risky work, such as temperature and pressure control in the refinery, are conducted by workers under conditions of fatigue.
According to Tesoro striker Ryan Anderson, USW Local 12-591 unit chair, 14 to 18 hours shifts on the plant, days in a row, are common.
Since the 2005 Texas City explosion in a British Petroleum plant killed 15 workers and injured 170 more, the American Petroleum Institute was pressured to develop a fatigue management guidelines for workers that would limit hours and days of work.
These guidelines are merely recommended practice and are not enforced or overseen by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), said Anderson. Management easily files exceptions to the guidelines when they want workers to work beyond recommended hours.
On the shop floor, enforcing safety guidelines can sometimes leave workers vulnerable to management.
“[Management] tells us we can say ‘no’ if we think a job is dangerous, but they put a lot of pressure on us [not to]” said Moothart.
Supervisors frequently try to pressure operators to sign off on safety checks, sometimes even before they have the time to properly assess the situation.
“It is hardest on the new people who don’t know they can say ‘no,’” Moothart added. “This is a right — to work safe — and people are afraid of losing their job.”
In its efforts to create a two-tier workforce, Tesoro management has increasingly hired more contract workers. These workers are vulnerable because they can be laid off for retaliation. Non-full-time, non-union workers are also known to be assigned the most dangerous aspects of the work, since they won’t show up in the Bureau of Labor Statistics as refinery workers.
“The more dangerous an occupation, the less likely a company would want to hire those people directly — they want to boost their own safety rates and decrease their liability,” Guy Toscano, a retired Bureau of Labor Statistics economist, told the Houston Chronicle in a 2005 interview after the Texas City explosion.
In addition, these contract workers may not receive the same level of skill development as a unionized refinery worker. The lack of full-time workers also results in a practice of mandatory overtime.
Increased hiring of full-time union workers over contract workers is an issue the union is fighting for in this strike.
As the plant continues to operate without the majority of its workforce because of the strike, it has become a potent health hazard for the community living around it, namely the Swinomish tribe.
On Feb. 21, the refinery emitted noxious odors that smelled like burning oil or tires, into the surrounding areas.
Two Swinomish tribal members, including an 81-year-old elder, were sent to the emergency room with breathing problems.
“The entire tribe experienced this,” Swinomish chairman Brian Cladoosby told the Skagit Valley Herald. “It was pretty bad. It wasn’t a small release. … We’ve been neighbors forever with this refinery, and this is the first time that something like this has happened. … I want answers and I want assurance that it won’t happen again.”
The oil refinery plant has an ongoing impact on its neighbors. In 2006, the Swinomish tribe conducted a study of the toxins in the water where tribal members fish as an integral part of their cultural practice and sustenance.
They found that the fishing locations closer to the refinery were severely contaminated and unsafe for fishing. The surrounding waters also exposed the tribal members to increased carcinogens and toxins.
Even the land the plant sits on, an area called March Point, is wrapped in controversy.
According to tribal chairman Brian Cladoosby, March Point was originally included in the land ceded to the Swinomish from the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliot. Subsequently, the 1887 Dawes Act caused the reservation boundaries to be redrawn and much of what was tribal land, including March Point, was sold by the federal government to white buyers. In recent decades, the tribe has been purchasing more than 1,000 acres of their land back.
As workers persevere in their demands for safer working conditions and staffing, the oil refineries represented by Shell Oil in these contract negotiations have failed to budge.
After seven failed proposals, no agreement has been reached.
“We have had lots of lucky,” said Moothart, explaining why more accidents haven’t taken place at the plant.
Let’s hope Tesoro workers can soon count on something more than luck for the safety of their lives.