Profits Vs. the Planet: Oil Workers Killed by Company Neglect

By ROLAND SHEPPARD

On Feb. 23, a refinery blast occurred at the Tosco Avon refinery in Martinez, Calif., killing four workers and critically injuring another. The men were part of a repair crew working on a 100-foot tower, who were trapped after a fireball erupted.

The unit operator who runs the tower told the San Francisco Examiner that when a leak had been discovered two weeks earlier he recommended that the tower be shut down. But the idea was “shot down” by management.

The accident “could have been avoided,” the operator said. “It should have been shut down before they tried to repair it.”

Refinery accidents are becoming more and more common in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Feb. 24 San Francisco Chronicle listed other recent accidents at the Tosco refinery alone:

  • Aug. 21, 1998: An overflowing tank spills 3800 gallons of fuel oil.
  • Aug. 5, 1998: A malfunctioning switch spews more than seven tons of methane and other gases into the air.
  • Aug. 3, 1998: Two sagging power lines meet, causing an accidental shutoff of electricity and forcing the refinery to burn off 2.5 tons of oil and gas.
  • July 29, 1998: A broken pipe causes a furnace to catch fire.
  • Jan. 21, 1997: A blast at the plant’s hydrocracker unit kills operator Michael Glanzman and injures 46 workers.
  • June 18, 1993: A valve malfunction releases irritating chemicals, sending several people to the hospital.
  • March 25, 1989: One man killed and another injured by an explosion at plant.
  • April 7, 1983: A catalytic unit explodes, killing one worker and injuring two.

Despite this increase in accidents, Tracy Hein-Silva of the Contra Costa County Health Department insists, “Refineries are safer than they used to be.”

Longer hours lead to accidents

These accidents demonstrate the effects of rotating eight-hour shifts, forced overtime, downsizing, and the introduction of the 12-hour shift. At this plant, the 12-hour shift began in August 1998, and four major accidents have occurred in the last six months.

When companies downsize they assign more work to fewer people and attempt to train them for health and safety as they perform their work. The wife of one of the victims stated about her husband: “He was worried about them cutting back the workforce, he didn’t feel there were enough workers for safety. They put people on jobs they didn’t know how to do.”

There have been many studies that demonstrate that the rate of accidents greatly accelerates after eight hours of work; longer shifts and rotating shifts deprive workers of time to recuperate from stress.

In a rational society, refinery workers would not work longer hours, they would work shorter hours. Four six-hour or six four-hour shifts would definitely be safer for the workers and the community. Alert workers can prevent accidents.

It is in the common interest of the oil workers and the surrounding community that the workday be shortened, without cutting the pay. A shorter work week would also provide jobs to the community.

The Oil companies and the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers International Union (OCAW) are well aware of these facts. Accidents and death are factored into production like casualties of war.

The people who live near refineries are also casualties of this production of profits, pestilence and death. The Tosco refinery, along with many other refineries in California’s Contra Costa County, have been constantly criticized by environmental groups throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.

These groups were instrumental in getting a “Good Neighbor Ordinance” passed to protect the community in 1997. The supporters of this ordinance maintained that sloppy practices during refinery overhauls led to industrial accidents.

But industry officials claimed that the labor-backed ordinance was a ploy to force the hiring of union workers on maintenance projects.

Last December, after two years of oil industry-spurred lawsuits, public hearings, and private negotiations, the Good Neighbor Ordinance was overturned. A new “oversight” law that is more lenient on the oil companies-merely requiring them to “study” accident-prone conditions-was put in its place.

A potential “Love Canal”

Along with pollution of the air, water, and land surrounding refineries, comes environmental illness. Around all refineries in this country there are “cancer clusters.” The communities around the refineries are a living “Love Canal,” endangering humans and all species.

The refinery workers likewise have higher rates of cancer and other diseases due to pollution of the occupational environment. The longer the exposures to these chemicals-the greater the risk of these diseases.

OCAW sponsors the publication New Solutions, which promotes environmental safety. This union is also the major advocate for a Labor Party in the United States.

The contradiction is that this union also considers itself to be “in partnership” with the oil companies. It does nothing to organize or advocate a shorter work week for the health and safety of its membership. It has none little to stop the downsizing.

If OCAW practiced what it preached, it would give up its partnership with the oil companies and form a partnership for health and safety with the working-class communities that surround the refineries.

Such a partnership of labor with the community could immediately form a local Labor Party to begin to politically organize for health and safety and to put the union in a better economic position in relation to the oil companies.

Every refinery in the country has the same conditions. If OCAW made such a move nationally, they would lead the way to the establishment of a Labor Party. Such a fighting stance would gain the support of environmentalists, civil rights groups, and workers throughout the nation.

By their own words, the leadership of OCAW is aware of these options. Unfortunately, they fiddle while the members burn.