Do you remember the Union Carbide plant that leaked toxic gas and subsequently killed an estimated 15,000 people? What about the BP well in 2010 that spewed oil into the Gulf of Mexico for months or perhaps the fertilizer plant explosion in Texas that registered on the Richter scale? These and many other industrial disasters were completely preventable, and all shared a common thread like the majority of large–scale industrial disasters: corporate decisions to deliberately neglect reasonable safety practices.
The United Steel Workers aren’t just on strike because of wages. They’re concerned about safe practices, because workers are in constant danger from a corporate culture that does not care for their safety. In Deer Park and Pasadena, Texas, refineries line the ship channel, processing everything from sweet crude to diluted bitumen from tar sands oil. The area makes up the largest network of petrochemical plants in the world. Plant operators act as the last line of defense against industrial disasters, and they are fearful of the results of company decisions to cut costs at the expense of safety.
“It’s like working around a bomb,” said one LyondellBasell employee while sitting outside of the Pasadena plant’s gates. The plant itself has not been inspected since 2010, when OSHA found sufficient violations to justify a fine. Striking employees were hesitant to give their names, expressing concerns about the tendency for industry and government to punish whistleblowers.
Though LyondellBasell recently reported record earnings for 2014 as well as a cheerfully positive financial forecast, the facility is still operating a fluid catalytic cracking unit, commonly known as a cat cracker, that is sorely outdated and dangerous. Despite being one of the more important parts of petroleum refining, the cat cracker at the Lyondell plant was built in 1952. Workers report that it has received updates based on the catastrophic industrial disasters caused by the other two models of identical design in France and Louisiana, but that the updates are slow to come due to cost-cutting decisions made by LyondellBasell.
Decisions about what to repair and when to repair it are made through risk management, a process of assessing the potential costs of failure of machinery. The easiest way to understand how risk management works is to listen to Edward Norton briefly explain how the car company he works for decides whether or not to do a recall in Fight Club, an explanation that is eerily accurate. In short, some complex math is done to calculate whether or not a company is likely to have an incident and how much it will cost. Price tags are put on the lives of employees and surrounding residents while risk managers try to calculate the costs and benefits of preventive maintenance versus merely running equipment until it fails.
According to a striking engineer at the Shell plant in Deer Park, process control instrumentation fails frequently at their plant. Process control instrumentation regulates temperatures and flow rates of chemicals in reactions, using complex calculations to automatically regulate controls in real time. When these fail, risk management frequently makes the decision to not replace the devices if the cost is too high. As an alternative, plant operators are required to manually adjust controls, blindly guessing at optimal rates without the input of precise readings. This sort of unsafe decision made by the company against the advice of plant operators is common, and not unique to the Shell plant. For anyone familiar with chemistry, the idea of estimating the amounts and temperatures of volatile chemicals involved in refining is a terrifying one.
As process control instrumentation and other pieces of hardware fail, workers are required to spend increased time and effort manually adjusting chemical flows that were previously regulated by precision automation. Instead of increasing staff to meet workload requirements, the plants have employees work overtime, sometimes being pushed to the limit at eighteen hours a day for two weeks straight, levels that are well known to cause cognitive impairment. Being insufficiently staffed can adversely impact safety, a factor that union members say was a strong contributing factor in a recent set of deaths at a local DuPont plant.
In order to further cut costs, the plants have brought in temporary contract labor, keeping them locked inside the plant and unable to leave during the strike. These contractors often lack any plant operation experience, which creates an additional safety concern, especially if they lack familiarity with the highly customized elements of specific plant operations. Strikers at the LyondellBasell plant even observed four ambulance visits in just the first five days since going on strike, a rate that concerns workers who are accustomed to rarely having that many incidents in as many months. This level of unsafe operation makes a large scale disaster almost inevitable.
Industrial disasters can be prevented, but only if attention is given to the warning signs. When those warnings are ignored the way that Shell and LyondellBasell ignore the concerns of their employees, those mistakes can measure on the Richter scale. Those warning signs are now quite literally standing in front of Shell and LyondellBasell, demanding that these companies pay more care to safety. Between LyondellBasell’s $4.5 Billion and Shell’s $16.3 Billion in profits for 2014, there’s more than enough money to cover the sort of safety protocols that would defuse Texas’ ticking time bomb before the cost has to be measured in dead bodies.