The Houston Chronicle’s Cindy George reports on the explosion last night (12/4) at Valero Energy’s Texas City, TX refinery.   One worker, Tommy Manis, 40, was killed and two other workers were injured.  The site is one of OSHA’s designated Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) sites, but I was not able to find data on OSHA’s website about this site’s most recent comprehensive review.  (With an OSHA VPP Star designation, the worksite is not subject to routine OSHA inspections or special emphasis enforcement programs, but undergoes an OSHA review every 3-5 years.)

One of the troubling items I’ve learned about this particular VPP site is their very recent experience with union-busting. 

From the August 2009 issue of OilWorker, I learned that during an organizing drive at the plant, 74% of the Valero workers signed a petition for United Steelworkers’ representation. Then, Valero management subjected the workers to “captive audience meetings for three weeks” before the formal NLRB election, hung “vote NO” banners at the entrance to the Texas City plant, sent a CD to every workers’ home address encouraging them to vote no, plus more.

As Jim Lefton, USW subdistrict director said

“this is a prime example of how the laws are clearly in favor of the corporations when it comes to organizing”

and why the Employee Free Choice Act is desperately needed.

I’ve written previously about the Valero company boasting that its “process safety program instills safety and reliability at every refinery.”  Repeated hazardous conditions at Valero worksites make me question the veracity of their claims.  Earlier this year, OSHA’s area office in Wilmington issued citations to Valero Energy Corp’s Delaware City oil refinery, including four repeat and nine serious violations of process safety management rules.   Now, we have another terrible incident which took the life of Mr. Tommy Manis.

The Houston Chronicle’s article includes statements from the company saying:

“The extent of the damage to the unit and the cause of the incident are still under investigation. Valero has notified and is working cooperatively with the appropriate governmental and regulatory agencies.”

and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board indicating:

“We are in contact with Valero and we’re gathering information.  We’re trying to understand the extent of the accident and the severity of the injuries and we’re, of course, concerned by the fatality.”

In June 2009, acting asst. secretary for OSHA, Jordan Barab, sent a letter to 100 refineries across the nation emphasizing the need to comply with process safety management standards.  The agency must have been compelled to send these notices after inspectors were finding the same hazards over and over again at refineries during a special emphasis program targeting these specific operations.  More recently, OSHA asked VPP sites to complete a process safety management questionnaire:

“…VPP participants whose worksites fall under federal jurisdiction and whose operations are covered by OSHA’s process safety management standard will receive a questionnaire that must be completed and included with annual self-evaluations. Evaluations are due Feb. 15, 2010.”

[Anybody have a link to the questionnaire?]

If the CSB decides to pursue an investigation of Friday night’s blast, we will probably hear from them within a week on the suspected cause of the explosion.  Meanwhile, I expect OSHA’s Office of Cooperative Programs will be trying to figure out why a worker was killed at a VPP Star site.

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