The Fire Next Time?

Downsizing, outsourcing, deferred maintenance ... It all makes for a volatile mix at Baytown's Exxon refinery.

That sanguine view is not shared by the workers, any of whom can relate horror stories of untrained or careless contractors botching even the simplest jobs. For instance, Kenny Kohlmeyer, a process technician who works in the Light Ends Unit, says that contractors have made so many mistakes blocking the wrong side of valves, a crucial and potentially lethal error, that his crew now hangs pink "idiot tags" in the correct spot to point the way.

Embry said that worker complaints about contractors, as with other perceived safety problems, need to be taken with a grain of salt. These are tough times in a competitive industry, he noted, and with downsizing and outsourcing the rule, workers are naturally nervous about layoffs and pay or benefit reductions. Refinery workers are generally well-paid (union members make up to $21.29 per hour), he noted, and "about the only way a refinery employee E can get much public sympathy is to relate [money] issues to things like safety, rather than the root issue, which is job security, income and those kinds of things."

But concerns about contractors extend well beyond the dwindling ranks of plant workers. In a report commissioned after the Phillips disaster, the U.S. Department of Labor cited a laundry list of concerns about the increased use of contract labor. Contractors have less management oversight, less knowledge of workplace hazards, higher injury rates and less safety training than plant employees. "OSHA has been concerned for some time about the diffusion of responsibility for worker safety and health when employers contract out work," the report said.

Recently, the union safety committee brought two major contractor violations to Exxon's attention. In the first, the Austin Company was regularly using an unlicensed tugboat operator to pilot a crane-loaded barge around the dock area, where oil barges load and unload their cargo. "The preponderance of data suggests that a license is required," admitted refinery supervisor Bob Blundell, who ordered the contractor off the job until the license was procured.

The committee's other complaint involved Inspectorate America Corporation, whose workers flouted numerous federal regulations in handling product samples. Among the infractions: untrained drivers were hauling improperly packaged hazardous waste without valid papers. The contractor was temporarily suspended.

Neither situation resulted in a spill, release or other serious incident. But Sharon Groth, the attorney and business agent for the Gulf Coast Industrial Workers Union (GCIWU), the largest at the refinery and chemical plant, says the two offenses beg the oversight question: "How do we find out about it, and [management] doesn't know?"

Not all contractors' errors have been forestalled without incident, however. On October 13, 1993, a 150-yard-long cloud of ethane ethylene escaped from a pipe in the refinery's Catalytic Light Ends Unit. Technician Jimmy Baker happened to notice the cloud, waded through the hydrocarbon fog and shut off the controlling valve. The vapor cloud dispersed.

According to Exxon's "Near Miss Report," the release was due to "improper installation of an incorrectly specified and defective gasket." Translation: instead of using the special, manufactured O-ring flange gasket required for a particular maintenance job, a contractor had simply hand-carved a gasket with a knife and stuck it in.

Had the cloud torched on one of the nearby ignition sources, says Kenny Kohlmeyer, "it would have made the Phillips explosion look like a back-yard barbecue."

Replacing plant personnel with contractors is only one way Exxon has been compromising refinery and chemical plant safety. The time between regularly scheduled turnarounds has been stretched from 12 or 18 months to two or three years, depending on the unit. The longer units go between turnarounds, the more likely equipment will break down. At the same time, the number of days allotted for turnarounds has been radically compressed.

The last time the refinery's No. 2 Catalytic Cracking Unit was overhauled, for example, it took more than three months to complete the project. The same unit is heading for another turnaround, but this time only 35 days have been allotted before the oil starts flowing again. Exxon is doing some of the work in advance while the unit is running, but Kenny Kohlmeyer disputes the company claim that this turnaround will be as thorough as the last. "There's no way in hell they can do that," he says, almost with amusement. "A cat unit turnaround is a tricky thing."

While admitting that the company is bringing units down for shorter periods and running them longer between turnarounds, refinery spokesman Ron Embry attaches the usual disclaimer. "We want to do that, and we plan to do that, in a way that does not compromise safety."

But Kohlmeyer scoffs at that notion, echoing numerous workers who report finding partial repairs and other dubious evidence upon returning to overhauled units. "The only way you shorten turnarounds," he says, "is by nixing work items."

If pipe inspection and replacement or other jobs slated for a turnaround are not carried out, it can come back to haunt. The hydrofining unit that caught fire last November when a pipe elbow failed had recently undergone a turnaround. As the incident report noted, the pipe was inspected for corrosion during the shutdown, but "the elbow which failed was not one of the monitored locations." A similar elbow on a sister unit was found to be as thin as a Coke can. "That elbow should have been caught," says a worker who was on duty nearby the night of the explosion. When he opened the door of his building, he says, "Everything was orange."

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