BEAUMONT, Tex. - Vast improvements in oil refinery safety will be the top bargaining goal of the Steelworkers (USW) when they open talks with the nation's oil companies on a new contract, the union announced.
To back up their determination on the issue, the USW's 30,000 oil sector workers gave Vice President Gary Beevers, their lead bargainer, authorization to call a strike at selected refineries or industry-wide, if needed. USW negotiates a "pattern" contract with one firm, and the others then agree to it. The current pact expires Feb. 1 at 12:01 a.m.
The union represents workers at 168 refineries and allied facilities, which handle 64 percent of U.S. petroleum products.
The overwhelming vote for the strike authorization is part of USW's National Oil Bargaining Program, which 300 delegates to its conference in Beaumont, Texas, drafted in September. The bargaining program was sent to USW's oil locals for voting.
The key issue will be "process safety," where refiners are required to ensure safe working conditions and to prevent accidents not just at individual refinery components, but at entire refinery complexes. Federal data show refiners failed frequently in that responsibility, with an average of one refinery fire a week for the last three years.
Process safety was a bitter disagreement in the last bargaining, after the fatal blast at BP's Texas City, Texas, refinery in 2005. The explosion killed at least 15 people and injured more than 100. USW found Occupational Safety and Health Administration never did a full process safety inspection of the whole plant.
Not only that, but such OSHA process safety inspections were infrequent at other refineries, too. USW made process safety a key point in the talks, but the companies absolutely refused to discuss the issue. That won't happen this time, Beevers vows.
"We think this is a fair proposal that addresses the problems we're finding in the industry's approach to safety and health," Beevers said after the vote. "Since Feb. 1, 2009 -- the date the current pattern settlement began-through Nov. 10, 2011 we are aware of 138 fires. In that time there have been 18 workplace deaths that we know of.
"The oil industry can't continue down this path," Beevers said. "Our proposal addresses safety and health issues and offers solutions to this continuing problem."
The best result, he added after the September meeting, would be for the oil industry to admit it has a safety problem and "partner with" with USW-which has enormous expertise oil safety and health issues-and create solutions "to make these facilities safer."
Photo: Aerial view of petrochemical plants and refineries, Deer Park, Tex. (David J. Phillip/AP)