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The United Steelworkers (USW) union on April 6 condemned remarks made by oil industry trade associations in the aftermath of the Tesoro refinery explosion and fire April 2 in Anacortes, Wash., that killed five and severely injured two others.
"It is obvious that this industry still has not learned from other refinery disasters and near-misses," said USW vice president Gary Beevers, who is in charge of the union's oil sector. "They are more concerned with their image than taking appropriate action on safety."
In weekend newspaper reports, American Petroleum Institute (API) officials said the industry isn't getting the credit it deserves when it comes to health and safety. They cite OSHA injury and illness rates for the sector that have dropped in the last decade. National Petrochemical & Refiners Association officials also brag that the industry has a lower injury rate than the U.S. manufacturing sector as a whole.
"It's incredible this industry brags about its safety record just after five people were killed in a refinery explosion," said USW president Leo W. Gerard. "The problem is the injury and illness rates the trade associations cite are misleading and do not give the full picture of health and safety within the refining sector. The recordable injury rates that OSHA collects measure items like slips, falls, sprains and fractures, not poor safety practices that lead to incidents like explosions and fires. There's a difference between a sprained ankle and an explosion that kills five people."
The fact that “the industry trade groups keep dragging out these injury and illness rates every time there is an accident” angers USW officials.
"I sat on an API committee with representatives from the oil companies for months, and we all agreed that OSHA injury rates were not a measure of refinery safety and that data should not be used, yet the API keeps publicly bringing up these injury rates whenever there is an accident," said Kim Nibarger, a refinery safety expert in the USW's Health, Safety & Environment Department. "It makes me think they are more concerned with the industry's image than they are with fixing the problems."
The API disagrees that refinery accidents reflect systemic problems within the industry, despite evidence to the contrary provided by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) investigations, an independent review panel that looked into the safety culture at BP, and OSHA's rigorous refinery inspection program after the BP disaster in Texas City.
"What determines whether a refinery is safe or not is how a refiner handles process safety," Beevers said.
Process safety refers to the replacement and maintenance of equipment; having systems in place to insure that pipes and machinery are in top condition; adequate training for employees; staffing so that workers don't do too much overtime that they get fatigued and make mistakes; maintaining adequate records and information on possible hazards to workers; and, making sure that changes to a process are recorded and shared with workers.
"The refiners aren't paying enough attention to the releases of toxins that occur when flaring is done or to fires that occur where nobody gets hurt or to equipment failures that don't result in explosions," Beevers said. "There is a lack of preventive maintenance and too much emphasis on running processes full out until something breaks down completely."
These process safety events happen on a daily basis. The USW is keeping track of these events at www.oilbargaining.org (a Web site that serves the union's National Oil Bargaining program, national oil health and safety campaign, and features news and information on issues within the oil industry).
"The API would be better served if it addressed these issues and others like it that exists in every refinery across the country, instead of spending millions of dollars on PR that tries to fool the American people that everything in their refineries is fine," Beevers said. "Five more people dead does not equate to everything is fine."
The USW is the largest industrial union in North America and has 850,000 members in the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean. It represents workers employed in metals, rubber, chemicals, paper, oil refining, atomic energy and the service sector.