Oil company's greed kills workers

March 10, 1999

By Barry Sheppard

Five workers atop a 100-foot oil tower were engulfed in flames at the Tosco refinery in Martinez in the San Francisco Bay Area on February 23. One worker was killed outright, three died after days of acute agony and another is in a critical condition with burns over 38% of his body and both legs broken. Tosco has tried to blame the lead operator at the unit where the explosion occurred; the same operator who, two weeks earlier, warned the company about the danger.

Anthony Creggett, the lead operator involved, was able to get the truth out by breaking into a media conference federal investigators were holding outside the gates of the refinery. "The accident could have been avoided. The whole unit should have been shut down. There's a lot more going on in there than [Tosco management] is saying", Creggett angrily declared.

He and "at least three other operators told upper management to shut down the unit two weeks ago, when a pin-hole leak was discovered in a pipe on the tower". The pipe contained naphtha, a highly inflammable component of gasoline. "They refused", Creggett said.

The night before the media conference, Creggett was "drilled" (his word) by investigators for the California Occupational and Safety and Health Administration. Tosco's attorney was present and Creggett was warned about who he talked to. Afterwards, the 13-year veteran at the plant quit and decided to go public with what he knew.

Creggett was on the tower just minutes before the explosion. "I had just been talking with these guys, joking with them on that structure just before it happened. Now they are dead", Creggett said, his voice cracking.

The response to the incident by Local I-5 of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union (OCAW), which covers the Tosco refineries in the Bay Area, has been tepid. Instead of getting behind Creggett immediately, its leaders said they have to wait for the "facts" to come out.

This particular Tosco refinery is infamous in the Bay Area for accidents that have injured and killed workers, and endangered the surrounding community. A partial list of such accidents since 1983 includes: on April 7, 1983, a catalytic unit exploded, killing one worker and injuring two; on March 25, 1989, an explosion killed one and injured one; on June 18, 1993, chemicals were released which sent several people to the hospital; on January 21, 1997, a blast at the hydrocracker unit killed one and injured 46; on July 29, 1998, a broken pipe caused a furnace to burn in a spectacular fire; on August 3, two sagging power lines touched, causing a shut-off of electricity and forcing the refinery to burn off almost two and a half tonnes of oil and gas in clouds of dirty smoke over Martinez; on August 5, a malfunctioning switch spewed more than 6.35 tonnes of methane and other gases into the air; and on August 21, an overflowing tank spilled 14,385 litres of fuel oil.

The rate of accidents seems to be accelerating as the company implements ruthless cost-cutting.

I used to work at another refinery a few kilometres from the Martinez refinery. When Tosco bought that refinery from Unocal two years ago, I wrote an article that appeared in Green Left Weekly, Labor Notes and the OCAW's Reporter magazine, warning that the contract Tosco was shoving down the workers' throats with the complicity of the OCAW top leadership would make Unocal's refineries more unsafe than they already were.

Tosco immediately slashed the number of operators at my refinery from 300 to 250, and cut more jobs later (I was one of those not hired by Tosco in the buy-out). These cuts compromised safety.

Then the work week (not counting overtime, forced and unforced) was increased from an average of 40 to 42 hours, with the eight-hour rotating shifts replaced by 12-hour rotating shifts (that is, workers worked 12 hours each day one week, then 12 hours each night the next).

At the time Tosco's Martinez plant workers had a better contract than the one the company forced on the former Unocal workers. But after its victory over us, Tosco cut the Martinez plant work force and whittled away their rights and conditions too. The 12-hour day was introduced there last August.

The wife of one of the victims said about her husband: "He was worried about them cutting back the work force. He didn't feel there were enough workers for safety. They put people on jobs they didn't know how to do."

Many studies demonstrate that the rate of accidents increases when workers work longer than eight hours. Rotating shifts and longer hours deprive them of the opportunity to recuperate from work. Thus, many accidents that are blamed on workers are really caused by the unsafe working conditions the bosses force them to accept.

In this case, the fault was clearly with management, who made a conscious decision, against the better judgment of Creggett and other workers, to continue work despite a dangerous leak.

Tosco spokesperson Linda Saltzman "could not comment" on Creggett's charges. Instead she said, "Our employees have the authority and the responsibility to shut down work if they feel it is unsafe, including shutting down a process unit without fear of repercussion". (If anyone believes this fairytale, I have shares to sell you, cheap, for ocean-front land near Alice Springs.)

I heard the same "policy" from management at Unocal; its purpose is to enable management to blame the workers for any accident. But if workers, fearing for their safety, did stop work against management's direct orders, they would find out about "repercussions"!

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