Workshop Talks: Chevron refinery’s ‘acceptable risks’

September 15, 2012

Workshop Talks

by Htun Lin

On Aug. 6, a huge toxic plume, caused by a massive fire from a leak at the Chevron refinery, spread over Richmond, Calif. Immediately afterward, the hot topic of discussion on the local TV news became what this would do to gas prices, not what it has done to the environment and the health of the community, which already suffers from chronic low-level toxic releases.

The next concern was the legitimacy of the claims, now over 9,000, filed by those who were harmed, or whose homes were damaged by the smoke, ash, and debris, which spread over tens of miles. Chevron executives and lawyers wasted no time setting up a claim center and a compensation process for the injured to get this cost behind them.


What happened was not an accident. While no one wanted to see an explosion, certain risks are deemed acceptable by the industry to keep production going. Chevron overruled their own engineers who, in a state-mandated safety analysis, had recommended replacing the pipe that exploded.

A refinery safety expert from the Steel Workers Union said, “When you have hydrocarbons outside the pipe, you are no longer running at a normal condition. It’s time to shut the thing off and fix it, not to try to figure out a way around it.”

But as one of Chevron’s experts acknowledged, a “normal condition” is to let production go forward even as these leaks regularly appear. Every consideration of risk for Chevron is merely to calculate not the human cost, but the cost of doing business.


As the Steel Workers Union rep explained, Chevron had not only known about this incident hours before the explosion, but routinely put workers’ lives at risk in “business as usual” daily “work-arounds.”

The Chevron toxic eruption reminded me of my own shop, even though healthcare and petroleum are different industries. Patients’ health as well as workers’ safety are put at risk daily by our own “work-arounds.” Often, healthcare professionals, who are hurried, harried, and harassed, do work-arounds in order to meet company goals set by the computer. The computer has become the omnipresent virtual boss on the shop floor.

Occasionally, these work-arounds cause mishaps that have serious consequences. The employees who use them know management will ultimately hold them at fault if these violations are exposed. Department bosses don’t discourage these work-arounds, because they save labor time.

When a patient files a complaint, management scrambles to order immediate “service-recovery” actions, in order to prevent the patient from filing a formal complaint with state agencies. This is only a band-aid on the problem in order to cover up ongoing inadequacies. State regulators, for their part, give the company only “slap on the wrist” fines.


A demand that Chevron pay for their mistake fails to address the price already paid by workers and neighbors. As one Richmond resident put it: “Whatever they pay me, it will not cover the cost of living here for 40 years, breathing their foul emissions daily, and having my kids suffer from asthma.” The asthma rate for children in Richmond is twice the national average.

Workers are ordered daily, with a nudge and a wink, to take many chances, putting not only others’ but our own lives at risk. Safety experts are repeatedly overruled, as in the 2005 explosion at a Texas BP refinery, which killed 15 workers. The same goes for the 2010 explosion at BP’s Transocean rig, which killed 11. As an industry, coal and oil may be safer than healthcare, since the casualty rate caused by HMOs is estimated to be 100,000 per year.

Long before any demands for industry to “pay up,” corporate honchos had already designed fiduciary disaster plans, to set up pre-fab claim centers, with ready-made arbitration waivers in hand, in order to speedily dispose of expected claims.

For the company, this is merely a cost already pre-factored in their plan. They will indeed pay, but on their terms. In short, nothing which happens in the shop, (not even a tragic accident), is purely a mistake.

They will continue to commit these “mistakes” unless and until workers gain control not only of their labor-power, but the meaning of their laboring activity–making labor, at last, not a mere means to an end, but an end in and for itself.

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