Injuries and deaths on minds of striking Steelworkers

Workplace safety is one of the core issues of concern for the thousands of refinery workers who went on strike February 1 at plants in Texas, California, Washington, and Kentucky. The workers are members of the United Steelworkers (USW), and say their employers— LyondellBasell, Marathon Oil, and Royal Dutch Shell—put lives at risk with excessive work hours, delayed maintenance, and production pressure. Their previous contract was negotiated and approved in 2012.

“Union members believe it is time to take a stand,” USW spokesperson Lynn Hancock told the Houston Chronicle. “If we don’t, our people will continue to get injured and killed on the job.”  The last time there was a walk-out of this magnitude by the USW was 1980.

Reporter Andrew Schneider with Houston Public Media spoke to picketing workers outside of LyondellBasell’s corporate offices.

“The union says the company is requiring excessive overtime which can reduce workers’ sleep time, and contracting out skilled jobs to unskilled workers less familiar with safety rules.”

Mr. Lee Medley, a pipefitter and president of USW local 13-1 told Schneider:

“’I was born in Texas City, I’ve worked in refineries for 35 years, my kids were raised here, so it’s us in the community, we live here. So if they’re hurting safety, they are putting my family and my friends at risk.’”

One of those risks—and it’s a big one–is the use of hydrofluoric acid (HF). It’s used at oil refineries in an alkylation process to increase octane levels in gasoline. Exposure to HF is dangerous and can be deadly. HF is extremely corrosive and can cause deep burns, including of internal organs. One safety data sheet explains:

“Even weak solutions of hydrofluoric acid will rapidly penetrate the skin, destroying the soft tissue and bone underneath.“

A release of HF will form a thick cloud that remains close to the ground. It can slowly travel miles from a site, poisoning and injuring those in its wake. In a 2013 report by the USW on HF, the union noted that 50 US refineries store and use large quantities of HF. (The USW represents workers at 28 of the 50 plants.) Surveys from those sites revealed a total of 131 HF-related incidents and close calls over the previous three years. More than half of the sites reported that neither on-site emergency responders, off-site emergency responders, on-site nursing and medical personnel, nor first receivers (e.g., hospital workers) were less than very prepared for an on-site emergency. Preparedness scores for the surrounding communities were even lower.

Gabriel Alvarado was 34 years old when an HF release changed his life. He was severely burned and ultimately lost a limb following the 42,000 pound HF release and fire in 2009 at CITGO’s Corpus Christi, TX refinery. The Chemical Safety Board estimated that 4,000 pounds of the HF likely migrated from the facility into the atmosphere. You’d think that CITGO learned a lesson, but in March 2012, another major HF release occurred again at the Corpus Christi facility. I think this is what USW’s Health, Safety and Environment Director Mike Wright meant when he said the following in the video Still Out of Control:

“I’ve never seen an industry where management is so casual about risk as the oil industry.”

Over the last 24 hours, press reports about the strike have used the terms “stalemate,” “progress,” and a “delicate situation.” I guess it depends who you ask. As for the workers’ safety concerns, Gary Beevers, USW International Vice President in charge of National Oil Bargaining, says:

“Onerous overtime, unsafe staffing levels, dangerous conditions the industry continues to ignore; the daily occurrences of fires, emissions, leaks and explosions that threaten local communities without the industry doing much about it and the flagrant contracting out that impacts health and safety on the job.”

How will it end? Beevers says:

“We’re going to stop killing people, or we’ll withhold our work.”