The Fire Next Time?

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Today, a host of detailed regulations, many of them imposed by federal mandate, govern almost every action in the plant. Virtually every ounce of crude must be accounted for. Wastes must be captured and properly disposed of. Risky maintenance procedures must be done under "breathing air," a self-contained scuba-like apparatus.

But a number of changes that affect plant safety and maintenance have offset those procedural gains, enough to have inspired Brenda King to join the joint union safety committee. She shares committee chair Tim Webster's apocalyptic vision of the future. "We're headin' for the big one," says King.

In the mid-1970s, according to union data, the mechanical work force in the refinery totaled more than 750. By 1986, amid an industry-wide cost-cutting frenzy, Exxon had cut that number by almost two-thirds. A recent wave of reductions has left only about 130 employees to repair and maintain the acres of machinery.

In their place, Exxon hires temporary contractors, a policy known as "outsourcing" in 1990s corporate-speak. Companies such as mammoth engineering firm Brown & Root provide hundreds of workers to do turnarounds and other tasks once done in-house. This saves Exxon millions in labor costs, but the company insists that safety is never compromised as a result. "Our contractor safety, which we steward very carefully and very thoroughly, in many instances is at least as good, and frankly sometimes embarrassingly better than our Exxon safety," said refinery spokesman Ron Embry before he was gagged by his superiors.

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."

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Bob Burtman