Safety Improvements Are Key Sticking Point for Striking Refinery Workers

As originally reported by Karen Caffarini in the Chicago Tribune, over 1,100 members of the United Steelworkers (USW) Local 7-1 have gone on strike at BP’s Whiting Refinery citing the need for greater safety protections. (The facility — located in Whiting, Indiana, just outside of Chicago — is BP’s largest refinery worldwide.) These strikers join over 4,000 other USW workers who have been on strike since February 1 at 12 refineries across the country as part of the largest United Steelworkers strike in 35 years.

Although the striking workers are also seeking adjustments to their healthcare and limits on the use of non-union contractors, a central sticking-point is improved workplace safety. Importantly, the workers point to recent incidents from around the country as evidence that their requests for greater workplace safety protections should be taken seriously.

Just last week, a refinery near Los Angeles suffered an explosion that injured four people and sent ash and other irritants into the surrounding community.

In a press release, USW International Vice President Gary Beevers said: “Thankfully, the injuries [from this explosion] do not appear to be serious at this time, but we and the communities where refineries are located are not always so lucky. We believe that improved safety measures can significantly reduce explosions and fires at these dangerous facilities.”

Union representatives also cited the 2005 Texas City refinery explosion in which 15 workers perished, and a much smaller explosion (with no injuries) at the Whiting facility in 2014, as evidence that more needs to be done to protect the safety of refinery workers.

In the summer of 1955, the Whiting refinery — then owned by Standard Oil — suffered an explosion and fire that killed two people, destroyed 67 storage tanks, and took eight days to completely extinguish.

On Sunday, BP spokesman Scott Dean told the Chicago Tribune that since 2011 the Whiting refinery’s injury rate has been 0.42 per 100 employees, well below the national average for most industries.

Added Dean: “In 2014, the vast majority of OSHA recordable injuries at the [Whiting] refinery had to do with weather-related slips and trips and minor hand injuries.”

Union representatives responded by calling attention to the Baker Panel Report on the Texas City explosion, which found that the company had failed to take safety precautions that might have prevented the deadly explosion.

The 1,400 acre facility in Whiting is the nation’s sixth largest oil refinery, processing over 740,000 barrels of oil per day and producing 8% of all asphalt used in the U.S. Its location has been the site of an operational refining facility since 1889. During the strike, most of the vacated positions will be staffed by recent retirees and workers who had transitioned to “white collar” positions.

Negotiations between the union and refineries are still ongoing.