After a string of accidents, refinery workers strike for safety

Federal and state investigations have found lax safety practices at oil refineries going back a decade.


On Feb. 1, negotiations over a new contract between oil companies and United Steelworkers union representing the nation’s refinery workers came to a halt. Company negotiators left the bargaining table. At midnight, roughly 3,800 workers began a strike at nine oil refineries in Texas, California, Washington and Kentucky.

Within a week, over a thousand workers at two more refineries in Indiana and Ohio had joined in the strike for safer working conditions. (The last nationwide strike, which was largely over whether workers should receive dental plans, involved 60,000 workers at 100 refineries and lasted three months in 1980.)

Complaints about safety are not unusual in the refining industry, where a string of accidents and explosions over the past decade have fueled a reputation for sloppy safety practices. But last week marked a turning point: For the first time in three decades, workers in refineries across the country went on strike to demand substantial changes to how employers prepare workers for dangerous work conditions.

The process of refining oil is both complicated and dangerous. Refineries receive crude oil from places like the Bakken in North Dakota and the oil sands of Canada, generally a mix of hydrocarbon chains, like butane or methane, which can be turned into things like jet fuel to asphalt. In the refinery, that oil is heated in order to separate out different components, then cooled, and heated and cooled several times over again. The process exerts huge pressure on the machinery and can produce highly combustible vapors. Even a small crack in the equipment can lead to an explosion.

“There's no real safe space anywhere in those refineries,” says Ryan Anderson, the lead union negotiator for the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Washington, where workers have been on strike for 12 days.

The Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Washington. Photo courtesy of Scott Butner.
Without proper training and constant vigilance, workers are unlikely to be able to identify warning signs such as abnormal heat or vibrations before a problem erupts. What’s more, Anderson says, there’s a widespread “run to fail” culture at refineries, in which equipment is used to the breaking point.

The result, in some cases, can be catastrophic failure. In 2005, an explosion at a BP facility in Texas City, Texas, where workers are currently on strike, killed 15 employees. A federal investigation found that workers did not receive sufficient training and had worked nearly a month of 12-hour shifts, without a day off. After an explosion in 2010 at the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes killed seven, a state investigation identified a lack of training and a failure to inspect equipment for damage.

While those accidents prompted the industry to restrict the number of shifts a refinery operator typically works and to retire some machinery earlier, union members say those issues still arise. At the Tesoro refinery, Anderson says refinery operators and technicians often work overtime on 12-hour shifts and are forced to complete time-sensitive tasks without enough trained backup to do it safely.

The union is calling for better training, as well as more staffing to distribute the workload and less reliance on overtime to minimize exhausted workers.

Royal Dutch Shell, which is leading the negotiations for the five companies affected, hasn’t publicly responded to the union’s push, except to contest the accusations of poor safety practices and reiterate the need for a "mutually satisfactory agreement."

While past federal and state investigations have laid much of the blame for refinery fatalities on oil companies, investigators have struggled to force them to make changes. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which investigates accidents, has no legal authority to force companies to improve safety. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and its state affiliates are charged with holding refineries legally accountable, but lack the staffing and influence to force refineries to comply. Annual inspections are not required. Instead, inspectors are sent following a referral from another agency or a complaint from an employee.

If state agencies do aggressively pursue a legal charge, they risk lengthy and expensive legal battles.

After state investigators levied a record-breaking fine of nearly $2.4 million against Tesoro following the 2010 explosion, the company appealed. Nearly five years later, the case is still making its way through the courts. Just last week, a judge once again reduced the fine, which is now less than a quarter of the original citation.

It’s unclear whether the union has the clout to force corporations, through the current negotiations, to change. As of Thursday Feb. 12, just under 5,000 workers at 11 refineries were on strike. One refinery in Martinez, California has extended a planned maintenance shutdown as a result, but operations at the others have not been impacted.

Still, Anderson hopes the strike will force refineries to change their practices.

“Any real and meaningful improvements we've made have been countered by going back in other areas,” he says. “It was time we did this.”

Talks between the union and Royal Dutch Shell are likely to resume soon but there’s no word on how long the strikes are likely to last.

Kate Schimel is an editorial intern at High Country News. Follow her @kateschimel.

Featured image courtesy of Flickr user Scott Butner. Image license is  available here.

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