The Fire Next Time?

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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."

The issue came to a head last May, when the company asked Bart Albright, president of the GCIWU, to remove member Dewey Hughes from the permit audit team. Hughes, one of two union appointees on the four-man committee, had aggressively questioned violations of the permit rules. Albright refused. In January, claiming Hughes was needed to work a turnaround in Fuels North, the company yanked him from the team anyway. The union withdrew in protest, leaving the team with worker reps hand-picked by management.

Refinery spokesman Ron Embry admitted that management selects safety personnel, but said it's not especially relevant. "Let me just say that we continue to work with our employees and the unions on these kinds of issues," he said, "and I think it has been an effective kind of partnership that we've developed."

Not effective enough, apparently. The grumbles from the work force having reached a dull roar, members of the GCIWU, as well as the machinists, electrical and clerical workers unions decided to act. They met in August at the GCIWU hall and crafted an unprecedented plan -- to form a joint union health and safety committee outside the official company structure. The meticulous, even-keeled Tim Webster was elected chair.

The purpose of the committee, its members agreed, was to serve as a confidential, last-resort option for workers who had voiced concerns through official channels but had been rebuffed. The committee would discuss each complaint and investigate its merits, then try to resolve the matter internally. If all else failed, OSHA would get a call.

At first, the company ignored the committee's letters and requests for information. A couple of OSHA investigations later, however, management perked up, though it has yet to officially acknowledge the committee's existence, responding instead through the union presidents. OSHA is currently investigating major safety violations at Pipestill 7 and should issue a ruling soon.

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Bob Burtman