Wash. Refinery Workers Protest for Better Working and Safety Conditions

There’s a lot of marveling these days about the tumbling price of gasoline, a boon to consumers. Average regular gas prices last week stood at $2.17 a gallon, a drop of 34% from a year ago, the media reported.

In Anacortes, Washington, about 70 miles north of Seattle, people attach a different price to gasoline: 13 human lives. That’s the number of workers killed in accidents at Anacortes’ two refineries in recent years.

In 1998, superheated oil exploded at the Anacortes coking unit, burning six workers to death. The operator was found negligent by state investigators. And in 2010, a heat exchanger ruptured at the Anacortes Tesoro refinery, spewing 500-degree naphtha. The ensuing fireball explosion killed five men and two women. Four years later, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board determined that the accident “could have been prevented,” blaming it on poor construction materials, ineffective safeguards and a management culture of complacency. Other refineries around the country share similar tales of fatal disaster.

The safety problems that led to these tragedies are the main reason that 190 Anacortes refinery workers are walking picket lines today, on strike along with 5,000 other oil processing workers at 10 other refineries around the nation. It’s the workers’ first nationwide strike in 35 years, instigated by a corporate culture that, in the words of USW International vice president Tom Conway, continues “to value production and profit over health and safety, workers and the community.”

But while there’s plenty of national media play about oil and gas prices, and some coverage of the walkouts, you’ll be hard-pressed to find much reporting that shines a light on the serious safety and staffing problems that triggered the strike.

“We boil oil for a living,” explains Ryan Anderson, Tesoro maintenance operator and a member of USW Local 12-591 in Anacortes.

Crude oil coming into the refinery is heated to several hundred degrees. Workers channel the oil into a distillation column, where the various components separate out. Chemicals are added to the distinct products. The brew may be heated further, compressed, processed, and out comes gasoline, jet fuel, diesel, butane and other hydrocarbons we use every day without a second thought. Besides the danger of manipulating super-heated oil, workers have to continually worry about caustics and poisonous byproducts like benzene and sulphuric acid, which can burn, give them cancer, or just kill them outright.

Anderson works in Tesoro’s instrument and electrical department. He’s responsible for maintaining the refinery’s motors, electrical wiring, safety systems, and pressure and flow transmitters. As with other jobs at the refinery, there’s no margin for sloppiness or error.

“Unless we’re always on top of how we’re doing it, it can get out of hand real quick,” Anderson said, in an understatement that is typical of his peers in the industry. In 1998, things got “out of hand” when coking unit managers cut corners on a vital cooling process. They gave the green light for workers to open the pressurized coking unit drum. There, they expected to find solid hard residue. Instead, hot liquid fuel poured out and burst into flames that engulfed them.

Workers also have to put up with broken and dilapidated equipment.

“We’ve got a ton of old equipment, which has asbestos insulation on it. It’s falling off, it’s crusted and broken,” said Gabriel Westergreen, an operator at the Phillips Ferndale refinery 30 miles north of Anacortes. Westergreen works at the refinery’s sulphur plant. Among other things, he has to manually open valves and draw fluid samples to check the level of hydrogen sulphide. Too much of the stuff, and it can kill. Frequently the sample stations aren’t working properly, he said. Westergreen and his co-workers aren’t on strike yet, but they may join other striking refinery workers if negotiations don’t settle soon.

Brutal work hours add danger to refinery work. The Anacortes and Ferndale workers typically are assigned 12-hour shifts, sometimes switching from day to night shift and then back to day shift with only a brief interlude. Staff cutbacks exacerbate stress. Schedules are lean, with no accommodation for people being out sick or on vacation, according to Erin McNutt, a Ferndale colleague of Westergreen’s.

“More and more, we use less and less people to do the same amount of work we did in the past,” said Anderson, “It leads to multiple overtime shifts, fatigue at home, stressed marriages, stressed family life, even stress leaving the job. If you’ve worked a 14-hour shift six days in a row, that doesn’t make you a safe driver on the road,” let alone perform safely at work. Anderson recognizes that overtime won’t ever disappear from refinery work, “but the amounts of it are becoming obscene.”

And then there are the “turnarounds.” Every three to five years, a plant must be shut down for thorough maintenance. It takes a couple of months to do full turnaround maintenance, during which time the facility is not producing any income. Management wants to get the turnaround done and the plant put back online as quickly as possible. Westergreen recalled that on one turnaround, he worked 62 consecutive days, at least 12 hours a day. McNutt said she put in 45 days in a row, 12-plus hours a day.

Anderson said newly enacted fatigue policies have eased the brutal turnaround schedule, but just barely. It’s now 13 consecutive days of 12-hour shifts, followed by a single day off. Then, another 13 days on. “We could do that upwards of two months.” But, Anderson said, management can file “exception reports” and cancel the single day off.

In 2005, an explosion rocked the BP plant in Texas City, Texas, killing 15 workers and injuring 180. Federal investigators blamed the explosion on “organizational and safety deficiencies at all levels of the BP Corporation.” One of those deficiencies, Ferndale operator McNutt said, was the culture of overworking staff. “Fatigue was a major factor,” she said. “They were starting back up after a turnaround. So these guys were on their 50th day and they were tired, and it got away from them.”

That tragedy, she said, prompted new federal standards on refinery staffing, but they aren’t being followed at her plant.

Can the industry do better by its workers and communities?

“We have to remember that we’re talking about an industry that makes billions,” Westergreen pointed out. In 2013, the top five oil companies reaped $93 billion in net profits. “And they can’t even invest enough of that to help keep these facilities safe and keep these workers safe,” he said. Refinery employee costs account for about three cents a gallon on the pump price, but even so plant managers compete against one another to hold down personnel costs. Management bonuses are at stake.

The strikers’ demands are fairly straightforward: Hire more staff, reduce overtime, provide the skill development people need to protect themselves, invest in safe equipment. Basically, stop killing workers and destroying their families: Cut the human cost of gasoline production.

The strike, Westergreen said, isn’t about wages. “We know we make good money. But money doesn’t mean anything if you don’t go home to your family.”

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