oil refineryLast week’s explosion and fire at the ExxonMobile refinery in Southern California underscores the need for improved safety conditions to protect both workers and communities, according to the United Steelworkers (USW).

“Our members work in dangerous and too often deadly conditions,” said USW International President Leo W. Gerard, who accused employers of reaping billions of dollars in profits while failing to improve conditions for workers.

The union is currently 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.

Four injured

The blast at the 750-acre Southern California refinery injured four workers and caused the evacuation of nearby residents.  Children at about a dozen schools in the area were told to shelter in place. The mayor of Torrance told residents near the refinery to stay in their homes, turn off air conditioners and close windows.

Dave Campbell, secretary-treasurer of USW Local 675, said the explosion occurred near a fluid catalytic unit. “We thank God that no worker at ExxonMobil - hourly, management, or technical -was killed or seriously injured,” Campbell said.

USW International Vice President Gary Beevers said improved safety measures can significantly reduce explosions and fires at these dangerous facilities. 

Five workers a year

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

Th Torrance incident is the second explosion this year at a U.S. refinery. In January, an explosion and fire rocked Husky Energy Inc.’s 155,000-barrel-per-day crude oil refinery in Lima, Ohio, causing extensive damage. No injuries were reported at the Lima refinery, also hit by fire in 2009, although the blast shattered windows and was heard across the city.

The Torrance refinery operates with 650 employees and 550 contract workers. Most of the operators are represented by the USW and were working under a 24-hour rolling extension of labor agreements that expired on Feb. 1.