When you get caught with your pants down, sometimes it's best just to admit it, pull them up and move on. Or, if you're Exxon Company U.S.A., admit it, pull them up and then claim they never fell down in the first place. That, at least, appears to be Exxon's strategy after the Occupational Health and Safety Administration slapped the corporation with a $150,000 fine for safety violations at its Baytown refinery.
As the Press first reported ["The Fire Next Time, April 18], reductions in personnel and maintenance at the refinery resulted in a number of potentially disastrous leaks, spills and near-misses. Employees became so concerned that they formed their own safety committee -- outside the official company structure -- composed of representatives from the plant's four unions. By carefully documenting safety lapses, the committee pressured Exxon to reverse its inclination to skimp on safety-related spending in order to pad the bottom line.
If the company failed to respond to the specific concerns, the committee reserved the right to file a complaint with OSHA, which it did last January after several especially egregious incidents. In one, Exxon failed to activate hydrogen sulfide monitors in the Pipe Still 7 unit, which had been plagued by leaks of that potentially lethal gas. Believing that the monitors were in fact working, employees stopped using a portable version, leaving them vulnerable if another leak occurred. And on New Year's Day, a pipe did pop. Although no one was injured, OSHA's investigation led to one of four citations the agency issued along with the fine.
Another citation concerned the use of unauthorized wooden and brass plugs to block leaks in pipes that demanded more permanent repair. As the Press reported, the wooden plug was actually a piece of a broom handle that a contractor had wedged into the leaky pipe.
Then and now, Exxon insists that safety is its number one priority. Though refinery spokesman Ron Embry was unavailable for comment to the Press, he told the Baytown Sun that the citations merely concerned a failure to document or communicate changes in technical procedures. Those "enhancements," he said, were designed to improve refinery safety in the first place, "and we're proud of that."
And in an internal memo to refinery employees, the company referred to the "alleged safety violations" and "alleged deficiencies," making special note of the language in OSHA's official announcement of the citations and fine: Ray Skinner, OSHA's area director, "commended Exxon and the unions representing the employees for their cooperation and timely response to the safety concerns raised during the inspection."
Skinner says his comments were directed at Exxon's willingness to address the problems detailed in the citations -- after OSHA's inspectors uncovered them. "I was commending them for basically settling the case," he says.
That settlement came at a May 28 meeting between OSHA, refinery management and the unions. In exchange for Exxon's agreeing not to contest the fine and citations, OSHA would craft a relatively positive announcement and list the type of violation as "unclassified," as opposed to the more offending "serious," "repeated" or "willful" varieties.
But the unions balked at the language in the proposed announcement, which gushed about Exxon's long, glowing history of providing a safe workplace and cooperating with the employees on safety matters. "If that had been the case," says union safety committee chairman Tim Webster, "there would have been no need to be there, because they would have already taken care of the problems."
All parties had to sign off on the document for it to be sent to Washington for final agency approval. But the workers refused, which threw the rest of the assemblage for a loop. "They all about shit, OSHA included," says Bart Albright, president of the refinery's largest union, the Gulf Coast Industrial Workers (GCIW).
After some tense negotiations, Exxon agreed to drop the revisionist history, and the employees went along with the rest of the settlement, choosing not to pursue a more damning classification for the violations.
Despite the company's favorable spin on OSHA's action, Ray Skinner says the violations are anything but minor. "OSHA considers any penalties in excess of $100,000 as being significant," he says.
And the workers scoff at Exxon's contention that the problems weren't actually safety violations and that the company responded immediately to correct them. The joint union safety committee had been asking Exxon to fix the hazards at Pipe Still 7 for months, says GCIW attorney and business agent Sharon Groth. But it wasn't until OSHA's investigation that the company finally acted. "If they had immediately responded," Groth says, "we never would have [gotten to that point] in the first place."
Workers hope the OSHA action will provide additional leverage for the safety committee, which continues to draw attention to perceived perils -- at the OSHA meeting, Tim Webster provided plant manager Sherri Stuewer with ten safety concerns that had cropped up after the agency had completed its investigation.
There's some evidence that the company is responding. A month after the meeting, Stuewer sent Bart Albright a point-by-point response to Webster's list. "Overall, at least in terms of getting back to us," says Groth, "the company's doing a lot better than they were."
Meanwhile, Exxon suffered another setback June 28, when the unions voted down a take-it-or-leave-it company offer to increase pay at the refinery and chemical plant in exchange for an agreement not to affiliate with a larger union (the GCIW is an independent). Apparently nervous about the prospect of tangling with a more powerful organization, the company tendered the offer after the national Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers negotiated a new industry-wide contract in February. Exxon's proposal actually exceeded the new industry wage standard.
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But with the existing contract due to expire next April, union officials were concerned that signing a non-affiliation agreement would strip employees of one of their few bargaining chips if labor relations were to deteriorate. Sharon Groth says employees saw the offer as generally a good one, "but not if we gave away one of the major weapons that we have."
Company management evidently felt that employees would be unable to resist cash on the barrel, and went to unprecedented lengths to encourage workers to vote. Daily reminders of the impending referendum appeared on the plants' closed circuit TV broadcasts, internal e-mail and newsletter. The supervisors frequently urged workers to exercise their franchise, and some employees report that during the two-week election period they were actually released from their posts to cast their ballots at the union hall, the first time union members recall that happening.
The push may have backfired, however. When workers arrived at the hall, according to Albright, "The first question we'd get was, 'Why do they want this so bad?' "
The results surprised even the most optimistic union leaders. "It was the first time in our history we turned down the money," says Albright.