Friday, February 23, 2018

Workers’ safety concerns ‘pushed back’


DISASTROUS EVENT: Workers clean the beach in La Brea after an oil spill last December. —Photo: TREVOR WATSON

Mark Fraser

On a fateful December day when Christmas shopping occupied the minds of most people, a 16-inch sea line broke at the State-owned refinery, sending a rush of black fuel oil into the Gulf of Paria and along the south-western coastline. The effect of that spill is still being felt today by fisherfolk and people in poor coastal communities. The Express takes a close look at the chain of events that led to this country’s worst environmental disaster.

This is the ninth in a series of articles by Camini Marajh, head, Express Investigative Desk.

One hundred and thirty days after the disastrous events of December 17, State oil and gas giant Petrotrin continues to push back on workers’ safety concerns and is still doing the same risky things in the same dangerous work environment.

The company took a hard line to workers’ concerns about unsafe conditions at No.6 Berth which has been under major upgrade since January 2014 and on April 25 called in the Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA) to green-light the berthing of a crude oil tanker carrying $50 million worth of Russian crude.

Workers’ complaints about serious safety hazards at No.6, which is Petrotrin’s largest berth, was met with criticism by Petrotrin president Khalid Hassanali, who in an internal company release that was later recalled, complained that berthing was delayed because of employees’ refusal to work despite a union-management agreement to suspend ongoing repair works whenever a vessel had to be offloaded.

He said the delayed berthing of the large tanker, which can only be accommodated at No.6 Berth, cost the company $1.3 million in demurrage charges for the eight-plus days the tanker had to wait outside the Pointe-a-Pierre harbour.

“As a result of the disruption, the company sought the intervention of the OSH Agency on April 25 to ensure that No.6 Berth was safe for carrying out the necessary operations.”

The internal company release, dated April 30, noted: “On April 29, the OSH inspector officially gave Petrotrin clearance to proceed with berthing of the vessel at No.6 berth. The disruption at No.6 berth has been a delicate one and bears serious financial consequences for the company. Aside from the demurrage charges, there were also losses of approximately $500 million to our refining business due to the domino effect that this delay has had. This compounds the company’s projected losses for the current fiscal year.”

Noting that No. 6 was important for the receipt of large parcels of crude, Hassanali said, “Continuity of our operations is critical to our ability to successfully navigate the challenges we face. We must continue to manage all issues in a prudent manner that satisfies our collective responsibilities to Petrotrin and the nation.”

He omitted to say that a cornerstone of the union-management agreement to suspend ongoing works at No.6 berth to facilitate offloading activity depended on Petrotrin’s ability to bring the place to a safe operating condition.

The crude tanker, Overseas Redwood, which is registered in the Marshall Islands, dropped anchor outside Petrotrin’s harbour at 10 p.m. on April 20 with a cargo of 722,000 barrels of Urals crude. Hassanali made the call to the OSH Agency five days later, on April 25, and was given the green light to proceed on April 29.

But not before the OSH Agency detailed a long list of identified safety hazards for immediate action. Safety hazards he rubbished when workers’ refused to go on the job site.

“Berthing of Overseas Redwood did not begin until the evening of April 29 because of employees’ refusal to work, supported by their union representatives, citing safety issues,” said Hassanali.

Among the long list of hazards flagged for immediate attention were:

Electrical—1. “Electricals on the junction box near the switch box at the top of the south eastern landing stage were corroded such that the electrical area classification can be undermined.

2. “Sections of the walls and floor of the electrical switch room were corroded such that there is a possibility that water might ingress into the room through heavy rainfall, thereby posing a risk of bodily injury associated with electric shock to those accessing this area.”

Access/Egress—1. “There were no closing devices on some of the top landing of ladders so as to prevent persons from inadvertently falling from the walkways to which they lead.

2. “There were badly corroded handrails on south-eastern corner of the facility thereby posing a risk of bodily injury associated with unsafe access.”

The inspection also found: bent fenders on the launch landing stage; obsolete equipment on site and signs of corrosion on the No.62 flow line riser.

• Continues on Sunday