The Fire Next Time?

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

Spot maintenance at the plants can be as wanting as the regularly scheduled variety. In April 1995, shortly after a batch of mechanics were sent permanently packing, the refinery instituted a new maintenance program, REMIT. The idea made sense: repair work would be evaluated and prioritized based on need. The more potentially serious the problem, the higher the priority. The maximum time limit for repair of the highest priority items was set at 30 days.

It wasn't long before REMIT was remitted. Because the mechanical force had been whittled to the bone, the deadline expired on top-priority repairs without any action. Though no official change has been made to the REMIT manual, Kenny Kohlmeyer says he was recently told by a supervisor that the standard has doubled to 60 days. And several workers report that repairs on the lower priority rungs, ever displaced by a backlog of more important items, wait indefinitely in limbo.

Exxon is shaving other maintenance costs as well. The company won't share budget figures, but the number of in-house inspectors, who test pipe thickness and generally catch trouble before it happens, has shrunk over the past few years. And though contractors may have been hired to fill the void, the results aren't inspiring confidence.

The question of what and when to inspect can be incredibly complex, involving computer models and reams of data. But Jan Miller has a simple assessment of the refinery's inspections program. Miller, a 15-year employee who works in the Light Ends units, recalls that when he started, inspectors regularly looked for -- and replaced -- thinning pipe. "Now," Miller says, "we just wait for the leaks."

When a 30-inch vapor line in Pipestill 7 blew a hole on New Year's Day, releasing hydrocarbons and hydrogen sulfide gas into the atmosphere, employees in the unit weren't exactly shocked. The same line had leaked the previous August, and was riddled with clamps and wrappers (an outer layer of steel that wraps around leaks or thin sections of pipe for reinforcement) from previous breaks.

More troubling was that after the August incident, the company had promised to conduct inspections of that and other "overhead" lines in the unit. "The Inspection Plan takes up where the current [plan] left off," says the incident report, "and is designed to ensure safe operation until the 1998 turnaround."

Moreover, several of the clamps on the line were required to undergo annual inspections, but hadn't. And on January 21, the vapor line blew out again.

When it comes to safety issues, Tim Webster prefers to err on the side of caution. A 17-year Exxon employee, Webster is a broad-shouldered man, with steel-blue eyes offset by a Roman nose and lantern jaw. He also has another distinguishing feature -- a blotchy swath of scar on the back of his neck and right wrist.

In February 1981, Webster and two other workers were working about 50 feet off the ground at Pipestill 7, checking for leaks. They found one. An open valve that should have been locked shut allowed a sudden spray of refined crude to blow from a vent, soaking the three. Before they could escape, the spray found a light, flashed and transformed them into torches. By the time they made it down from the rack, they'd suffered second- and third-degree burns over half their bodies. "We were lucky to live through that," Webster recalls evenly. "Very lucky."

The fire kept Webster in the hospital for five weeks and out of work for a year. When he returned to the plant, he had a new perspective on safety in the workplace. "I tend to look more now at serious safety issues," he says with a calmness more powerful than a scream. "I don't want anyone else to end up like I did."

Along with his co-workers, Webster grew increasingly distressed at what he saw as a sea change in Exxon's priorities. Even as the company cut jobs, supervisors pushed for greater "efficiency," urging the workers to produce more with less. From a safety standpoint, the result was inevitable. "We kept hearing more talk from employees who had safety concerns that weren't getting attention," Webster says. "We're talking serious safety concerns."

The refinery and chemical plant have a veritable web of official safety channels, some required by law. Each has a health and safety department to oversee programs. Investigation teams analyze incidents deemed worthy of investigating and produce reports complete with "action steps" to avoid a reoccurrence. Another team audits safety permits for the most dangerous work to ensure they're done properly. Every unit in the refinery has its own company-sanctioned safety committee that meets regularly and addresses issues as they arise.

But lately, the official channels haven't been working very well. A number of the unit safety committees, for instance, have become so ineffectual that workers stopped participating. "We didn't even have one for the longest time, because everybody thought it was such a joke," says Kenny Kohlmeyer.

The hang-up, according to the workers, comes from the top. Though the various safety committees and teams include both management and labor, the bosses get to choose who's on them. And the representatives they've been choosing are the least likely to point out hazards or otherwise impede the process. "They don't take people who will ask questions," says Kohlmeyer, who works in the Light Ends units. "They're company lackeys. They don't have any respect from the rank and file in the field."

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