Exactly 2-years after the disaster, the five-member U.S. Chemical Safety Board voted unanimously to adopt its final investigation report on the March 2005 catatrophic explosion at the BP Texas City.  Fifteen workers were killed and 180 others were injured from the blast.  Among the many disturbing findings from the CSB’s investigation, was data showing that equipment operators had worked way too many shifts in a row and were fatigued, seriously fatigued.

Our investigators determined that operators involved in the startup likely were fatigued, having worked 29 straight days of 12-hour shifts. By the day of the startup, the board operator had an accumulated sleep debt of 43 hours. (Merritt testimony, see p. 4)

Among the dozens of recommendations, a few were directed specifically to the United Steelworkers (USW) and the American Petroleum Institute (API), including one to address worker fatigue.  Recommendation 2005-4-I-TX-7 said USW and API should work together to develop, through the  American National Standards Institute (ANSI):

“…fatigue prevention guidelines for the refining and petrochemical industries that, at a minimum, limit hours and days of work and address shift work.”

Moreover, the CSB recommended that development of the standard

“…conform to ANSI principles of openness, balance, due process, and consensus,”

and that the committee:

“…include representation of diverse sectors such as industry, labor, government, public interest and environmental organizations and experts from relevant scientific organizations and disciplines.”

But, after months of effort, the Steelworkers have admonished API for not taking seriously the negotiat-ions and blatantly disregarding the CSB’s instruction.  In an 8/4 news release, USW Int’l Vice President Gary Beevers said:

“…we found the API and the industry did not understand the meaning of consensus.” 

When we talk about worker fatigue, we have to recognize what has been happening to U.S. workers’ schedules over the last decade:  lots of overtime, double-shifts, and more than five consecutive shifts.  Based on the CSB’s report and the USW’s own experience, the practice is going on in refineries and petro-chemical production, but it’s also happening in mining, construction and in service industries.   For the public’s health, we should be asking:   What happened to the 40 hour work week??  [Instead of hiring a few more workers (to whom they'll have to offer health and other benefits), employers prefer using-up their current workforce and intoxicating them with overtime pay.*]

In the negotiations on worker fatigue issues, the USW wanted API to:

“commit to reducing the number of open positions filled by overtime hours and the amount of overtime worked by individuals.”

But USW indicates that the industry

“…refused to set reasonable limits to the number of consecutive days worked and to establish the amount of rest time after consecutive days and hours worked.  They say it is a management rights issue, and their solution is to force overtime on those who are not working a lot of it now.”

Does that mean that instead of the operator working 29 straight 12-hour shifts—as was the case for one of the BP workers—that splitting up that many hours of straight work among two workers is better? AND safe?  Hardly.

USW Beever’s said:

“Haven’t the API and industry learned anything from the 2005 BP Texas City fire and explosion?  Fatigue was a major contributor in that catastrophic event.  How many more Texas City-like disasters have to occur before the industry learns it has to get serious about worker fatigue?”

The USW’s statement mentions other reasons why the negotiations failed. 

“API excluded environmental and public interest organizations from the committees developing the standards and severely weighted the process against workers by giving one vote to each of the 22 oil companies and one vote to each of the three oil workers’ union representatives.”

It sounds to me that API and the industry also don’t have a dictionary to look up the meaning of “balance” and “representation,” which were the exact terms used in CSB recommendation for developing the consensus standard.

The USW also reports that API and the oil industry were balking at measures to enhance public reporting of safety failures.

“The API and the industry fought us on the level of transparency and public reporting of incidents.  They said they would report major events, but after a trial period, they would do blind reports of safety system failures.”

Beevers added:

“That does not cut it.  There must be reporting of all events, major and minor, to hold these companies accountable for their approach to safety and to enable them to learn from each other’s mistakes.”

*Note: If workers organize and insist on good wages and benefits to support a healthy family life, they shouldn’t have to work overtime.  I realize, however, that many workers are now relying on overtime wages and/or a second job because their primary job doesn’t provide a living wage.

Comments

  1. #1 Mark
    August 6, 2009

    Thanks for this important post.

    Crew fatigue was also a crucial factor in the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in March 1989.

    The NTSB Marine Accident Report Grounding of the U.S. Tankship Exxon
    Valdez on Bligh Reef, Prince William Sound Near Valdez, Alaska, March 24, 1989 cited fatigue as a cause/ contributing Factor to the Accident (http://www.ntsb.gov/publictn/1999/sr9901.pdf ), including:

    Many conditions conducive to producing crew fatigue on the Exxon Valdez exist on other Exxon Shipping Company vessels because many are three-mate vessels and because the company has pursued reduced manning procedures.

    Exxon Shipping Company manning policies do not adequately consider the
    increase in workload caused by reduced manning.

    The Exxon Shipping Company had incentives and work requirements that could be conducive to fatigue.

    The Exxon Shipping Company had manipulated shipboard reporting of crew
    overtime information that was to be submitted to the U.S. Coast Guard for its assessments of workloads on some tankships.

  2. #2 Celeste Monforton
    August 6, 2009

    Today’s Wash Post has a story about pilot fatigue, and the FAA’s chief commitment to close a regulatory gap.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/05/AR2009080503566.html

  3. #3 Joe
    August 14, 2009

    I suppose it’s hard to get both sides of the story here, particularly if you don’t seek out the other side (did anyone here ask the management for their take on this?).

    I work in one of those petro-chemical plants. And while you’ve quoted:
    ” USW indicates that the industry ‘…refused to set reasonable limits to the number of consecutive days worked and to establish the amount of rest time after consecutive days and hours worked. They say it is a management rights issue, and their solution is to force overtime on those who are not working a lot of it now.””

    Last year when the management at my plant (actually, across the company) rolled out new overtime restrictions (limiting the number of hours that could be worked without a break, and the consecutive number of days that could be worked without days off), who do you think threw a kindergarten style hissy fit? It was those same USW members who are crying for a break.

    The reason they didn’t like it was because it meant that those members who wanted more overtime (a.k.a. more money) wouldn’t be allowed to get it, and those who didn’t want it would be forced to work it.

    Oh, and I suppose hiring more workers is their answer – at a time when we’re struggling to keep the place running and keep the people we’ve got.

    Make up your mind – you can’t eat your cake and have it, too.

  4. #4 Joe
    August 14, 2009

    P.S. would you consider $25/hour a living wage? NONE of these people were sucker-punched into accepting high paying jobs (with good benefits) that included shift-work.