USW: Refinery Explosion Highlights Strike’s Safety Concerns

By Allen Smith Feb 20, 2015
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An explosion and fire at a refinery in southern California underscores the United Steelworkers’ (USW) recent demands for improved safety to protect workers and communities, the union asserted.

The explosion at the ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance, Calif., occurred Feb. 18, 2015, as 5,200 members of the USW are striking at 11 refineries across the country with safety as a major concern.

The blast at the 750-acre refinery occurred at about 8:50 a.m. The Torrance refinery has 650 employees and 550 contract workers.

“Initial reports suggested that four people suffered minor injuries. News photos of the blast site show twisted metal, crushed vehicles and flying ash. Residents nearby reported feeling the ground shake after the blast and seeing smoke and flames,” the union said in a release. “Children at about a dozen schools in the area were told to remain inside. The mayor of Torrance told residents near the refinery to stay in their homes, turn off air conditioners and close windows.”

“Thankfully, the injuries do not appear to be serious this time, but we and the communities where refineries are located are not always so lucky,” said USW International Vice President Gary Beevers, who heads the union’s National Oil Bargaining Program. “We believe that improved safety measures can significantly reduce explosions and fires at these dangerous facilities.”

The union is bargaining for new labor agreements to cover about 30,000 workers throughout the oil industry at 65 refineries and hundreds of pipelines, terminals, petrochemical plants and other facilities.

Every year for the past five years, five workers have died in incidents at U.S. refineries, and surrounding communities have been exposed to smoke and toxic chemicals.

This is the second major explosion this year at a U.S. refinery, according to the USW. In January, an explosion and fire rocked Husky Energy Inc.’s refinery in Lima, Ohio. No injuries were reported, although the blast shattered windows and was heard across the city.

Oil Company Statements

ExxonMobil states on its website, “Those of us at the Torrance Refinery understand the importance of involvement in the community and we are committed to making a positive contribution to the quality of life for our neighbors.”

It adds, “The Torrance Refinery is committed to zero tolerance of any negative impact to our neighbors.” And it says that “the Torrance Refinery is prepared for emergencies with its own fully equipped fire department, which trains regularly with the Torrance Fire Department.”

After the blast, ExxonMobil Torrance Refinery issued a statement noting, “Fortunately, all four contractors who were sent for evaluation have been released.” And it added, “The nonimpacted units of the refinery continue to operate. We are cooperating fully with the appropriate agencies to assess the impact and determine the cause of the incident. We learn from all incidents and will use information from this incident to reinforce our commitment to continued improvement.”

Allen Smith, J.D., is the manager of workplace law content for SHRM. Follow him @SHRMlegaleditor.

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