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health and safety

Big Oil’s Bi-Partisan Helpers: a Refiner’s Fire 5 Years Later

By Steve Early - Counterpunch, August 4, 2017

Five years ago, my wife and I moved to Richmond, CA and soon learned about the local emergency response protocol known as “shelter in place.”

When large fires break out in Bay Area refineries, like the century old Chevron facility near our house, first a siren sounds. Then public officials direct everyone nearby to take cover inside. Doors must be closed, windows taped shut, if possible, and air conditioning turned off.

August 6th is the fifth anniversary of such self-help efforts in Richmond. On that day in 2012, we looked up and saw an eruption worthy of Mount Vesuvius. Due to pipe corrosion and lax maintenance practices, a Chevron processing unit sprang a leak. The escaping petroleum vapor reached an ignition source. This led to a raging fire that Contra Costa County (home to four refineries) classified as a “Level 3 incident,” posing the highest level of danger.

Nineteen oil workers narrowly escaped death at the scene of the accident. It sent a towering plume of toxic smoke over much of the East Bay and fifteen thousand refinery neighbors in search of medical attention for respiratory complaints, While local property values took a hit, Chevron stayed on track to make $25 billion in profits that year.

Senator Backed by Rail Companies Introduces New Bill That Would De-Regulate Rail Industry

By Justin Mikulka - DeSmog Blog, July 25, 2017

A new bill by one of the rail industry’s favorite senators looks to change how the industry is regulated to allow “market forces to improve rail safety.” In June, Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), who happens to chair the Senate Surface Transportation Subcommittee, introduced the Railroad Advancement of Innovation and Leadership with Safety (RAILS) Act.

In essence, the bill seeks to shift the rail industry toward a self-regulatory — and more difficult to enforce — approach to safety known as “performance-based regulation,” an effort first reported by DeSmog after a Congressional hearing in May.

In that hearing, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA) advocated for performance-based regulations for safety, saying that government should “allow the railroad industry to keep more of their profits.” That's what you should expect when moving to a system relying on market forces to improve safety.

Speaking of market forces, it should come as no surprise that the top donor to Senator Fischer’s election campaigns is rail company Union Pacific. Or that four of her top eleven donors are rail companies, which include Berkshire Hathaway (owner of rail company BNSF), Norfolk Southern, and CSX.

That helps explain why she is pushing to allow the industry to self-regulate via performance-based regulations. Even in a pro-industry opinion piece in the publication RailwayAge, written by a former employee of rail lobbying group, the Association of American Railroads, it wasn’t possible to sell the bill without noting that it allows industry to regulate itself:

…performance-based safety standards mean rather than the [Federal Railroad Administration] prescribing particular actions, such as mileage-based brake tests and specific operations and maintenance procedures, the agency would specify a safety outcome — such as a maximum accident-type rate or component failure rate — and allow each railroad to devise its own cost-effective means of achieving that target.”

What could go wrong if you allow each railroad to devise its own cost-effective means of achieving safety? Let’s take a look at Exhibit A: Lac-Mégantic.

Maintenance, safety, and the drive for production

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, July 19, 2017

I just read an article about Daniel L. Couch Jr., a mine maintenance chief who pleaded guilty to falsifying safety documents. Before people go throwing him under the bus, it’s important to understand a few things about mine maintenance, safety, and the push for production.

Certified mine electricians don’t just repair electrical equipment and perform maintenance, they are also required to inspect electrical equipment to ensure operational safety, electrical safety, and permissibility (the ability to operate in a methane-air mixture without igniting said methane and causing an explosion). It involves everything from checking the brakes, safety canopies, motor compartments for flammables, fire suppression systems, dust control system, and all of the explosion proof enclosures, cable entrance glands, lights and so on using feeler gauges to ensure tolerances of anywhere from .002 to .005 inches on said enclosures. We also had to hand check upwards of 500 feet of the electrical cable feeding the machine, searching for cuts and punctures to the insulating jacket, sometimes in mud one foot deep. We called them permissibility checks, and they had to be performed weekly and recorded with our signature under 30 CFR Part 75.512.  If the equipment in question wasn’t inspected and signed off on, violations were issued to the company and fines were levied.

As you can imagine, a mine electrician has a lot of responsibility. Not only do you have the responsibility of making sure people aren’t killed operating large pieces of equipment powered by 3 phase voltages from 480 Volts up to 990 “ha-ha” Volts (ha-ha because it’s always over 1000V, but they say 990V to keep from having to comply with regulations for high voltage), but electricians are also the first line of defense in keeping the company out of trouble with the law—and the company doesn’t hold back from pointing fingers if someone does get hurt or they get fined for a violation.

The problem as I encountered it, came when the company didn’t hire enough electricians, or give them enough time to do all required maintenance and safety inspections. They stretch hours out and work people mandatory over time which reduces both their mental acuity and, for some, their work ethic. The mine where I worked, gave us only 6 hours to effect major repairs, perform maintenance, and inspect equipment between production shifts. If we had to advance the section or “belt up,” we were also tasked with shutting down the high voltage feed and moving the section power center (sub station) forward in the mining process. If I’m not mistaken, the manual for a Joy continuous mining machine states it should take more than 10 hours to perform the proper permissibility checks. Things get missed, and the electrician takes the fall.

So how or why the belt drive inspections weren’t performed at Paradise No. 9 is still a mystery to the public. Whatever it was, it led Couch to falsely sign the books saying the inspections had been done to avoid fines. Perhaps he thought he could get by with it, perhaps he was feeling pressured, or maybe he was just looking for an “attaboy.” Still, I can’t help but wonder if a lack of maintenance personnel was a factor.

Summer of Solidarity and Rail Safety

By staff - The Evidence is in: The Train Crew did not Cause the Lac-Mégantic Tragedy, July 3, 2017

How many more have to die?

July 6th this year marks four years since a runaway train carrying volatile Bakken crude crashed and burned in the small town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 and destroying half the town. It’s time to recommit to making sure tragedies like this don’t happen again. It’s also the right time to speak up against the criminal trial beginning September 11th this year, that unfairly and inaccurately hangs the Lac-Mégantic crash on two railroad workers, Tom Harding and Richard Labrie.

Railroad managers push hard to squeeze every dollar they can out of every train run. The Lac-Mégantic train had a dangerous cargo, overlong train, defective equipment, a single crew-member and work rules that cut the margin of safety down to just about zero. The result was a disaster that still impacts the Lac-Mégantic community.

Multiple government safety investigations and independent journalists looked at what happened in Lac-Mégantic and came to the same conclusion. Railroad management policies made this kind of runaway train crash likely to happen sooner or later. Lax government oversight looked the other way until it did.

You would think that four years later there would be stronger safety regulations on every railroad, with extra layers of protection for dangerous cargo. Sadly, this is not the case. Railroad policymakers are still cutting corners and government regulators are still looking the other way. They want people to believe that the big safety problem is a few careless railroad workers.  But in Lac-Mégantic, SINCE the wreck, the supposedly safely restored wreck curve has now deteriorated and keeps that community at risk.  Everyone there tightens up when a train passes now.

Even after all the reports and exposes, the Canadian and Quebec governments are still not going after the railroad policy makers and their unsafe policies. The managers who made the critical policies will not even get a slap on the wrist. That’s just wrong, and it guarantees that the danger continues. Every year since the crash, the number of reported runaway trains in Canada has increased. That’s a sign of a reckless culture, not the actions of two rail-road workers one night in Quebec.

Whether your main issue is the environment, community safety, rail safety, or worker’s rights, it comes down to stronger government regulations and stronger railroad safety policies, with real community and labor enforcement. The two railroad workers were not the cause of the Lac-Mégantic crash or any of the runaway trains since then. They are not the ones still running trains right through the town of Lac-Mégantic, ignoring the demands of the survivors for a simple rail bypass. The people in Lac-Mégantic know that sending Harding and Labrie to prison won’t address any of their problems with the railroad. But if that happens, you can bet the government will close the book as the official verdict on Lac-Mégantic and railroad management will be standing there with them.

When you hold public commemorations this year, we ask you to make this point your way. Blaming Harding and Labrie for the Lac-Mégantic tragedy weakens all of us and all our causes. So all of us have to speak up.

An Open Letter to Our Allies in the Fight for Safe Rails and a Sustainable Environment

Open Letter - By Railroad Workers United, June 7, 2017

No More Lac-Mégantics – Drop the Charges

July 6th marks four years since a runaway train carrying volatile Bakken crude crashed and burned in the small town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 and destroying half the town. It’s time to recommit to making sure tragedies like this don’t happen again. It’s also the right time to speak up against the criminal trial beginning in early September this year, that unfairly and inaccurately hangs the Lac-Mégantic crash on two railroad workers.

Some of us focus on how dangerous this kind of cargo is. Trains carrying volatile crude are called “Bomb Trains” for a reason. Some of us focus more on rail safety, no matter what or who is on the train. We push for safer work schedules and big enough train crews to handle an unusual situation or an emergency. Railroad managers push hard to squeeze every dollar they can out of every train run. The Lac-Mégantic train had a dangerous cargo, a single crew-member and work rules that cut the margin of safety down to just about zero. The result was a disaster that still impacts the Lac-Mégantic community.

You’d expect railroaders to point the finger at management. But we’re not the only ones. Multiple government safety investigations and independent journalists looked at what happened in Lac-Mégantic and came to the same conclusion. Railroad management policies made this kind of runaway train crash likely to happen sooner or later. Lax government oversight looked the other way until it did.

You would think that four years later there would be stronger safety regulations on every railroad, with extra layers of protection for dangerous cargo. Sadly, this is not the case. Railroad policymakers are still cutting corners and government regulators are still looking the other way. They want people to believe that the big safety problem is a few careless railroad workers.

Even after all the reports and exposes, the Canadian and Quebec governments are still not going after the railroad policy makers and their unsafe policies. Instead railroad workers Tom Harding and Richard Labrie will be on trial this fall in Quebec. The managers who made the critical policies will not even get a slap on the wrist. That’s just wrong, and it guarantees that the danger continues. Every year since the crash, the number of reported runaway trains in Canada has increased. That’s a sign of a reckless culture, not the actions of two rail-road workers one night in Quebec.

Whether your main issue is the environment, community safety, rail safety, or worker’s rights, it comes down to stronger government regulations and stronger railroad safety policies, with real community and labor enforcement. The two railroad workers were not the cause of the Lac-Mégantic crash or any of the runaway trains since then. They are not the ones still running trains right through the town of Lac-Mégantic, ignoring the demands of the survivors for a simple rail bypass. The people in Lac-Mégantic know that sending Harding and Labrie to prison won’t address any of their problems with the railroad. But if that happens, you can bet the government will close the book as the official verdict on Lac-Mégantic and railroad management will be standing there with them.

Railroad Workers United is going to mark the Lac-Mégantic anniversary wherever we are. We’ll stand in solidarity with the people of Lac-Mégantic like we have for four years, and talk about rail safety. That’s who we are. But we’ll make sure to point out that scapegoating two railroad workers for this tragedy will make railroads and communities across the continent less safe.

When you hold public commemorations this year, we ask you to make this point your way. Blaming Harding and Labrie for the Lac-Mégantic tragedy weakens all of us and all our causes. So all of us have to speak up.

Justice for Lac-Mégantic requires Dropping the Charges Against Harding & Labrie

Sign on to this appeal! - Contact: (202) 798-3327 | info@railroadworkersunited.org

By Delaying Chemical Safety Rule, Pruitt Endangers First Responders and Refinery Towns

By Daniel Ross - Truthout, May 18, 2017

At 8:48 a.m. on the morning of February 18, 2015, an explosion at the ExxonMobil Torrance refinery in Southern California ripped through the facility with such ferocity, the resulting shockwaves registered on the Richter scale. Dust was scattered over the densely populated neighborhood up to a mile away from the blast. Four workers suffered minor injuries. A hulking 40-ton chunk of debris from the refinery's Electrostatic Precipitator narrowly avoided hitting a tank containing tens of thousands of pounds of highly toxic modified hydrofluoric acid.

The damning findings of a Chemical Safety Board (CSB) review of the accident were made public earlier this month. Among some of the problems identified in the report: the refinery repeatedly violated ExxonMobil's corporate safety standards leading up to the incident, while multiple gaps existed in the refinery's safety systems.

"It was only sheer luck that the hydrofluoric acid tank wasn't hit," said Dr. Sally Hayati, president of the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance. If it had been hit, the collision could have released a toxic ground-hugging cloud with the potential to kill for nine miles and cause serious and irreversible injuries for up to 16 miles under worst-case scenario projections, she added.

"This is yet another symptom of how in our country we always put profit ahead of safety," Hayati said.

Just before Obama exited office, his Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) put in place a new federal rule setting tougher safety procedures at facilities covered by the EPA's Risk Management Program (RMP). The rule is designed to prevent accidents like the 2015 Torrance refinery explosion from happening again, and to better protect first-responders and the communities perched in the shadow of facilities that store and use potentially dangerous chemicals.

According to EPA data, over 1,500 accidents were reported by RMP facilities between 2004 and 2013, causing more than $2 billion in property damages.

The new rule was supposed to come into effect in March. But after a petition opposing the rule was filed by a coalition of trade associations, the EPA initially stayed its implementation for three months. Then, after various states and companies in the refining, oil and gas, chemical and manufacturing sector filed further petitions, the EPA proposed to extend the stay an additional 20 months -- until February 19, 2019 -- in order to win time to consider these various petitions, and to possibly "revise" the RMP amendments.

Fearing that the EPA under Scott Pruitt will take the side of industry and further delay, weaken or even try to abrogate the new rule entirely, a coalition of community groups, scientists and environmental organizations filed a motion to intervene in the lawsuit last month.

"We don't expect Pruitt to defend [the rule]," said Gordon Sommers, associate attorney with Earthjustice, who filed the motion on behalf of the coalition. In a letter to the EPA last year when still Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt asked the agency to withdraw the rule, citing national security concerns.

"We know where he stands and we know that his arguments are the same arguments that the big industries are making," said Sommers. "We know his priority is not protecting these communities."

How We're Surviving Right to Work: Oil Refinery Workers Get People in Motion

By Alexandra Bradbury - Labor Notes, May 16, 2017

The key is collective action, says Steelworkers Local 675 Secretary-Treasurer Dave Campbell. His union represents 4,000 workers in California and Nevada, many of them at oil refineries where workers get a window of opportunity to drop their membership each time the contract comes up for renegotiation. In each refinery of 300-600 workers, the union maintains around 90 percent membership.

That's because members have the habit of acting for themselves as a union on the shop floor. Union leaders encourage members to bolster a grievance with workplace action. For instance, a supervisor had forbidden people to wear baseball caps, sunglasses, or Hawaiian shirts in the control room. Workers collected signatures on a petition and presented it to the other supervisor, who crumpled it up and threw it away.

“We organized all four crews to show up for work with Hawaiian shirts, sunglasses, and ball caps,” Campbell says, “and the union bought the roast pig for a Hawaiian luau lunch. When the superintendent saw all the workers united, he of course asked what the hell was going on—and the supervisor who had caused all this was reassigned.”

Besides being fun and effective, these activities give workers the chance to learn by doing. “In essence they see what the union really is,” Campbell says. “The union is them, and it’s their concerted, collective activity on the shop floor which gives the union power.”

Face it: We are all sickened by inequality at work

By Sharan Burrow - Hazards, April 28, 2017

When Babul Khan lost two of his four sons in an inferno at Gadani shipbreaking yard on 1 November 2016, it was a tragedy but it wasn’t a surprise. Like all the 26 workers who were killed when an oil tanker was blasted apart at Pakistan’s largest shipbreaking yard, 18-year-old Ghulam Hyder and 32-year-old Alam Khan were insecure workers. Disposable workers.

The yard was shut in the immediate wake of the deaths. Soon, though, it was business as usual – and that meant, inevitably, more deaths. At least five workers died in a fire on a liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) container ship at the shipbreaking yard on 9 January 2017. The yard was making money; a steady stream of horrific fatalities was just collateral damage.

Who lives and who dies at work is not an accident of chance. The emergence of increasingly precarious forms of employment in convoluted supply chains was as deliberate as it was deadly.1 It creates a working world where the bad actors set a wage, conditions and employment rights benchmark which sucks down conditions across the global economy.

Maintaining a system of indecent work has always required an extra ingredient – a divided workforce. Where workers do not have a collective voice and where jobs are by design segregated by gender, race or class those divisions can perpetuate disadvantage and leave the most exploited workers powerless while undercutting the conditions of the rest.

All this comes at a price.2 At the top of the workplace pecking order, those making the decisions don’t just receive multipliers more in income and perks, they get to live many years longer to enjoy them.

Where workers do not have a collective voice and where jobs are by design segregated by gender, race or class those divisions can perpetuate disadvantage and leave the most exploited workers powerless while undercutting the conditions of the rest.

Disillusioned Shell Whistleblower Runar Kjoersvik

By John Donovan - Royal Dutch Shell Plc.com, March 17, 2017

We have published a series of articles about Runar Kjoersvik, the Norwegian safety expert who in 2014 was dismissed by Shell on trumped-up charges.

Evidence was gathered in a covert surveillance operation as part of a vicious campaign conducted against him by Shell Norway senior management.

Runar was twice elected by his fellow workers, first as a SAFE Union representative and subsequently as the Main Safety Delegate.

His election was not a fluke. The employees who elected him at the Nyhamna Gas Plant in Norway knew Runar was fully qualified. He had attended several Norwegian law and HSE courses where he learnt how to protect legal rights according to rules, regulations and Norwegian Law. He also earned a diploma of strategic leadership from college university.

So in general, he had very skilled training and a long education that has led him to different managerial positions in several international companies giving him flawless feedback prior to his time at Shell.

He was, therefore, confident that his skills for managing the Main Safety Delegate position were first-rate and genuinely believed he could do a good job both for his co-workers and for A/S Norske Shell.

Senior plant managers congratulated Runar on achieving the Main Safety Delegate position and told him:

You will now be able to make an influence on Shell in a greater perspective, you will get to know the organisation, and make an influence through the work environment committee. This will be very positive for your future development and career.

Runar was also impressed by Shell’s claimed core values: honesty, integrity and respect for people, set within codes of conduct and ethics.

The future looked good. A responsible job and a decent employer.

The promising outlook did not last very long.

The Day of Mourning for injured and killed workers was invented by Canada. Now we're killing more workers than anyone

By Ed Finn - Rabble.Ca, April 28, 2017

April 28 is the National Day of Mourning for workers killed or injured on the job. This is the second of a two-part series. read part one here.

The lack of safety in Canada's workplaces is a national -- and international -- disgrace. Many of our industries neglect safety training, skimp on safety equipment and keep employees unaware of the danger of new chemicals. In our fiercely competitive global market, they will put the maximization of profits ahead of the "costly" provision of safe workplaces -- as long as they can get away with it.

Our governments, too, have given on-the-job safety an inexcusably low priority. Oh yes, they've beefed up work safety rules, even given workers the right to refuse dangerous duties, the right to sit on industrial health and safety committees -- even the right to be informed about the dangers of any material they are obliged to handle.

But, as with Bill C-45, no such legal rights can be exercised without managerial retaliation unless workplaces are regularly inspected and safety laws strictly enforced. And on that score, our federal and provincial governments have fallen shamefully short.

Without stringent government oversight, employers are left free to flout safety rules and regulations. They can maintain their profits-before-personnel policy with virtual impunity.

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