Workers Killed by Oil Company's Greed

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. Four are dead, and the other is in critical condition with burns over 38 percent of his body.

Tosco has tried to blame the lead operator at the unit where the explosion occurred. The truth is that the operator, Anthony Creggett, had warned the company about the danger two weeks earlier.

Creggett was able to get the truth out by breaking into a press conference federal investigators were holding outside the gates of the refinery.

"The accident could have been avoided," Creggett angrily declared. "The whole unit should have been shut down. There's a lot more going on in there than [management] is saying."

Creggett said 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.

Creggett said the night before the press conference he was "drilled" by investigators for the California Occupational and Safety and Health Administration. Tosco's attorney was present, warning him about who he talked to. After that experience, Creggett, a 13-year veteran at the plant, quit and decided to go public.

TEPID UNION RESPONSE

Creggett himself was on the tower just minutes before the explosion. "I cannot go back to work here. 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 OCAW Local 1-5, which represents workers at Tosco refineries in the Bay Area, has been tepid. Instead of getting behind Creggett immediately, its leaders said that they have to wait for the "facts" to come out.

New Book

Secrets of a successful organizer

A step-by-step guide to building power on the job. Buy Now. »

This particular Tosco refinery is infamous in the Bay Area for accidents that have injured and killed workers and endangered the surrounding community. Two years ago, a blast at the hydrocracker unit killed one and injured 46. Last summer, a broken pipe caused a furnace to burn in a spectacular fire. A month later, two sagging power lines touched, causing a shutoff of electricity and forcing the refinery to burn off two and a half tons of oil and gas in clouds of dirty smoke over Martinez. Right after that, a malfunctioning switch spewed more than seven tons of methane and other gases into the air.

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

For example, when Tosco bought another nearby refinery from Unocal two years ago, it slashed the number of operators from 300 to 250 right away, and cut more later. Then the workweek (not counting overtime, forced and unforced) was increased to 42 hours average from 40, with the eight hour rotating shifts replaced by a 12 hour, rotating shift schedule.

Workers at the Martinez plant at the time had a better contract, but the company has since cut the workforce and whittled away at their rights and conditions too. The 12-hour day was introduced there last August.

"HE WAS WORRIED..."

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

There have been many studies that demonstrate that the rate of accidents increases when workers work longer than eight hours. Thus many accidents blamed on workers are really caused by the unsafe conditions management imposes.

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

Tosco spokeswoman 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."

The purpose of this "policy" is for management to be able to blame the workers for any accident, claiming that they should have shut it down themselves. If workers did any such thing against management's direct orders, we would see if there would be any "repercussions"!