WyoFile Energy Report

Wyoming refiners consider safety alliance

During the past decade, Wyoming oil refineries have rained tar down on homes and cars, spewed tons of silica catalyst and streamed poisonous orange clouds over Wyoming neighborhoods. There have been countless fires, too, which, in recent months, have injured at least seven Wyoming workers.

All of this has taken place during a decade in which Wyoming has held the dishonor of having the worst, or close to the worst, workplace fatality rate in the nation.

Dustin Bleizeffer

Big changes are long over-due.

On Tuesday, representatives from all five of Wyoming’s refining companies came to Casper to meet with Gov. Matt Mead, his staff and officials from Wyoming Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), with a tentative plan to form an industry alliance to improve workplace safety at the state’s refineries.

In keeping with Wyoming’s approach to safety and the oil and gas, mining and construction industries, the refining industry alliance would be a voluntary effort bolstered by support from the state; identify safety challenges, set best practices, work with Wyoming OSHA in a consultation capacity rather than rely on tougher corrective and punitive actions.

That may not sound like the bold type of action you’d hope to expect when workers have become disposable commodities. It’s not the sort of action that comforts families ripped apart by a death or serious workplace injury (state studies show that workers who are seriously injured can expect a significantly reduced income earning ability for the rest of their working career). But for now, it appears, this is the Wyoming way.

“It will be your organization. … All I’m saying is we are here to offer any help, whether its data we can share or whatever. We’re not here to tell you what to do,” said former judge Gary Hartman, policy advisor to Gov. Mead.

This voluntary approach was the genesis of the Wyoming Oil and Gas Industry Safety Alliance (WOGISA), and the results of WOGISA’s efforts in terms of workplace fatalities and injuries is yet to be determined. But one thing is clear; refinery industry representatives are least talking the talk when it comes to workplace safety.

This is WyoFile editorial cartoonist Greg Kearney’s take on workplace safety in Wyoming. To be fair, Sen. John Hastert (D-Green River) says OSHA can only enforce the rules set before them by Wyoming lawmakers. (click to expand)

“I found your investigators were really professional and their focus was to help us, and not just there for a gotcha (investigation). … So we’re really interested in a partnership with OSHA,” Silver Eagle Refining Inc.’s general manager Jerry Lockie told one OSHA official on Tuesday.

Lockie added that after dealing with some serious issues at the refinery, management is committed to “completely revamp” the culture of safety at the refinery.

“I’m encouraged that they are eager to get on board with this,” Mead told WyoFile.

The fact that Wyoming’s oil refiners seem eager to develop a plan for improving the safety of their employees (and in turn, for the livelihoods of their workers’ families) is something I can get behind. Just so long as it’s not used as an excuse to negate hefty penalties where they’re earned, or to block workers and their families from having their day in court.

It would be a mistake to forgive bad actors based on an industry’s voluntary efforts to do the right thing. Because Wyoming’s elected officials are so eager to please industry management, more vigorous inspection and stiffer penalties remain off the table, for now.

In the meantime, let’s encourage Wyoming’s refiners (which include Silver Eagle, Antelope, Sinclair, Frontier-Holly and Newcastle) to collaborate on how to ensure safer working conditions for their employees and their neighbors. The group was even so open as to allow two reporters to join their meeting with the governor on Tuesday (myself and Casper Star-Tribune reporter Adam Voge) at Sinclair’s Casper location — not a common occurrence for an industry that, more often than not, finds its way into the news cycle for some type of accident.

Even before any real collaboration began, the group of refining officials easily identified two main safety challenges; power outages are too frequent, and Wyoming OSHA is lacking in consultation personnel specializing in “process safety management.”

“If there’s anything we can do to help you (Mead’s staff) to get more (process safety management resources), we’ll help,” one refinery official promised.

Just this past weekend the refinery at Sinclair reported two accidents, including one that sent one worker to the hospital, according to the Rawlins Daily Times. A focus on making Wyoming’s refineries safer cannot come soon enough.

— Dustin Bleizeffer is editor-in-chief of WyoFile. He has reported on Wyoming’s energy industries and workplace safety issues for the past 14 years. Contact Dustin Bleizeffer at (307) 577-6069 or dustin@wyofile.com

Check out these stories and columns related to Wyoming’s refineries and workplace safety:

— Wyo OSHA witnessed fires and fire hazards prior to workers being burned

Fuel Factories; Communities at risk

Wyoming takes courtesy approach to curbing workplace deaths

Widow of fallen Wyoming worker speaks

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Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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