Steelworkers tell feds about oil industry safety woes

WASHINGTON (PAI) – The rampant safety hazards exposed by the fatal, catastrophic fire, explosion and sinking of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year unveil a catalogue of wide-ranging problems in the oil industry, the Steelworkers say. And they’re safety problems industry executives ignore, downplay and refuse to deal with, the union adds.

Details presented by USW witnesses to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an independent agency investigating the blast, show problems are not just at drilling rigs but occur at refineries, pipelines and virtually all other areas of the oil industry. And accidents in oil affect not just those facilities but surrounding areas as well.

The board spent a whole day Dec. 15 hearing testimony from outside experts, industry reps, the union and a unionist USW brought from Norway. His union represents rig workers there and Norwegian job safety and health laws are strong. The hearing came the same day the Justice Department sued BP for problems at Deepwater.

USW represents 30,000 oil refinery and pipeline workers, but no drilling platform workers, “and the industry is determined” to keep the platforms union-free, USW health and safety director Mike Wright said. The Deepwater Horizon disaster killed 11 men.

Still, the USW told the board, lessons learned elsewhere, including those detailed by USW Local 4959 leaders Glenn Trimmer and Fritz Guenther, from the Prudhoe Bay oil field in Alaska, can be applied to the platforms – and indeed to the entire industry.

But Congress or the board will have to force the industry to comply, Wright said. “I’ve worked on safety [issues and investigations] in nuclear power, steel, forestry, rubber and plastics” and elsewhere, the union veteran said. “I know of no industry where the gap between the hazard and the progress to address it as wide.” But when USW brought safety and health up in nationwide pattern bargaining with the oil majors, he said, the industry has flatly refused to address the issue, claiming a great safety record and that accidents are the workers’ fault. In the last bargaining, the industry’s “pattern” company “threatened to take a strike” over safety, Wright added.

Instead, he said, the majors, led by their lobby, the American Petroleum Institute, write voluntary safety regulations for themselves – often full of holes – don’t follow them, and say BP is an isolated case. Wright, citing accidents nationwide, disagreed.

“After the 2005 Texas City blast” which killed at least 15 people at BP’s USW-

represented Texas City, Texas refinery, “We got a federal grant to develop a process safety curriculum,” he explained. “It was approved by OSHA and we offered it, for free, to the companies,” where USW would train workers in safety, “if they would just pay the salaries of workers to come to it” for 3-day sessions, he added. They turned it down.

The industry’s attitude extends down to the local level, the two Alaskans said. At Prudhoe Bay, until local management changed last year, bonuses depended on how few accidents managers reported.

Health and safety data was “manipulated” and workers did not report accidents “for fear of being disciplined,” Trimmer, Local 4959’s secretary-treasurer, said. BP has “a safety matrix” for each pipeline work area, with standards set for how few accidents are allowed. Report more, the 30-year veteran said, and supervisors lose bonuses.

“One guy had a bad vehicle accident. He had a broken leg and didn’t report if for three hours. When he finally had to and we asked him why he delayed, he responded that he feared being fired,” Trimmer said. Overtime and fatigue are also problems: 18-hour days for 2-week stretches are technically banned, so workers toil 16 hours.

Guenther, a 25-year chief steward at Prudhoe, said that from 1979 to 1994, management emphasized preventive maintenance on the pipeline, but things have gone downhill since. Workers left and were not replaced, while the oil field he worked at doubled in size. Only recently has new hiring exceeded retirements, Guenther added.

“We went from preventive maintenance to running around fixing problems at all hours of the day and night,” even in Alaska’s sub-zero cold, Guenther said. Problems pile up and are shoved into “a backlog.” Structures at the pipeline are reaching the end of their useful working lives, 15-25 years old, developing cracks that are patched. And BP rejected the local’s contract proposal for a full-time health and safety specialist.

“We have to fundamentally change how we regulate this industry – and there’s an even wider gap between regulation and the industry” than elsewhere, Wright told the CSB. “What we need are effective management programs, with strong regulation, backed by strong unionization and strong worker involvement” in safety.

Unions can protect workers and whistleblowers, have the clout to bring up safety problems and the engineering expertise to tackle them, Wright added. Otherwise, “something fails at three in the morning and you throw workers at it – and people die.”

The workers recommended giving regulators more power over the oil industry, and more people and money to do their jobs, but Wright admitted that’s unlikely given the coming composition in Congress.

Trimmer had another idea for CSB: “Maybe it would help if Congress gave you guys the power to put some people in jail.”

BP workers used propane torches to burn off oil from a leak from an oil transit pipeline at the Prudhoe Bay oil field on Alaska’s North Slope in this Aug. 18, 2006 file photo. Al Grillo/AP



Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.