Today, if you sit down across the table from Steve Swader and introduce yourself, little evidence remains that the very hand you’re shaking was once shrouded in molten sulfur—as was his face, head, and neck.
And it could have been a lot worse.
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- MORE JUICE : Employees at the Phillips 66 (formerly ConocoPhillips) Santa Maria oil refinery voiced concerns over safety to New Times after plant management reassigned and severed the shifts of its five full-time emergency response employees. The decrease in emergency-certified staff comes as Phillips 66 prepares to ask the county to allow them to ramp up production by 10 percent.
But in the morning hours of April 5, 2008, he was fortunate to have some of the county’s most experienced emergency responders just around the corner. Swader—then a 19-year veteran steel worker at the Phillips 66 (then ConocoPhillips) Santa Maria oil refinery—and a pair of coworkers were attempting to clear a sulfur plug in one of the plant’s processing unit’s exchangers, used to cool sulfur gas to liquid. That liquid then runs through a “down sticker” line and into a sulfur pit.
Think of a down sticker as you would the P-trap piping under your sink or toilet; it’s a curved pipe that naturally vents to prevent backflow as material passes through. Over the course of use, a down sticker can become plugged with solidified sulfur the consistency of wet concrete—called sulfurcrete. In order to clear such a blockage, workers use some 180 pounds of pressurized steam, pumped into the top rod of the down sticker through a utility hose.
As Swader turned on the steam control valve, a nearly 300-degree cloud of steam and molten sulfur erupted from the sulfur pit’s catch basin—directly onto his face, head, and hands. All he knew at first was that he had steam blow up on him, he said. When he realized what had happened, he instinctively started to run.
“I began to feel the sulfur on my face, so I just started pulling it off,” Swader said. “What I didn’t realize was that I was pulling the whole top layer of my face off.”
As the radio traffic began to blow up, he jumped into the nearest burn shower, soaking himself as he began to understand the commotion over the airwaves was about him. Despite the searing pain, Swader managed to confirm what had happened and radio his location. That’s when Bernie Gallizio—one of the facility’s health and safety shift specialists (HSS)—burst in, wrapping Swader in wet towels, anti-burn cream, and cold packs. He was joined by colleague Andy Garcia, who wasn’t on site initially, but who responded immediately upon hearing the call. With the help of Gallizio and Garcia, Swader was in the back of an ambulance and on his way to Arroyo Grande Community Hospital within a matter of minutes.
“They said, ‘We’re getting you out of here,’” Swader recalled. “They saved me.”
- PHOTOS COURTESY OF STEVEN SWADER
- SULFUR BURNS : Steve Swader survived a blast of sulfur to his face, neck, and hands in 2008 and credits the onsite health and safety shift specialist team with his quick recovery.
Swader suffered almost third-degree burns, the brunt of which hit his hands and the back of his neck. He was driven to Fresno’s burn center and treated, and after nearly eight weeks, he was ready to get back to work.
Swader credits his speedy and complete recovery to the quick thinking of two of the facility’s emergency responders. At the time, he also credited the company he’d spent nearly two decades with for staffing the refinery with emergency response professionals equipped to control the situation.
But since that day, Swader said, it’s been the policies of Phillips 66—formerly ConocoPhillips—the oil company that owns the facility, that threaten not only morale but perhaps the safety of workers.
Now, just as Phillips 66 prepares to go before county officials to ask to ramp up the Santa Maria refinery’s throughput by 10 percent, it appears those same safety technicians who made the difference in Swader’s accident may become an asset of the past.
* * *
The Santa Maria refinery (SMR) sits atop the lower portion of the windswept Arroyo Grande mesa, near the Pacific Ocean. With a little elevation, you catch a glimpse of the Oceano Dunes in the background slightly to the north and the Guadalupe Dunes to the south.
Since it was built in 1955, the refinery has changed hands a number of times—initially moving from Union Oil Co. of California to Tosco, to Phillips Petroleum, and finally to ConocoPhillips, which recently changed its name to Phillips 66.
One of the nation’s roughly 140 oil refineries, the 1,780-acre facility operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. It currently boasts 133 employees and approximately 90 contractors, and produces about 44,000 barrels of crude oil a day, which it semi-refines into two products. Connected via a pipeline to the Rodeo Refinery approximately 200 miles to the north, it’s part of Phillips 66’s San Francisco Refinery System.
The plant processes heavy, sulfur-rich crude. Once semi-refined, the liquid product is sent through the pipeline to the Rodeo facility for upgrading into finished petroleum products. Solid petroleum coke and recovered sulfur are also shipped out of the facility by rail or truck.
As horrific as Swader’s episode was, it’s not as if such accidents are common at the Santa Maria refinery. Quite the contrary. In fact, the facility has exceeded safety standards repeatedly over the last decade and has received numerous awards of recognition.
- IMAGE COURTESY OF STEVEN SWADER
- PRIORITIES? : Phillips 66’s newly unveiled logo and motto places safety first.
As recently as 2011, the Phillips facility was the proud recipient of a Distinguished Safety Award from the American Fuel and Petrochemicals Manufacturers Association, one of only three recipients across the nation that year. It received honorable mentions in 2007 and 2010.
According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Industrial Relations’ Division of Occupational Safety and Health, Swader’s incident was the only serious incident at the plant since 2002, and in the end, Cal/OSHA fined the plant only $280 of an original $27,000 penalty after dismissing a number of violations the agency initially found in its investigation.
The last fatality at the refinery occurred in 1995, when a nitrogen explosion blew a steel dividing plate, killing two workers.
If the plant has since earned a stellar reputation in the industry, it coincides with its hiring of health and safety shift specialists over the last decade, employees told New Times. These health and safety specialists lead and coordinate training for the facility’s emergency response team and fire brigade, and have spent the last decade pressing the company for first-rate safety and emergency response equipment.
But once heralded by the company as the gold standard in private safety, the health and safety shift specialists now find their department—and their jobs—in danger of severe reduction. Maybe even elimination.
According to a 2011 case transcript drafted by the National Labor Relations Board, safety incidents occur at the facility about 75 to 100 times a year. The majority of those are minor—anything from a stubbed toe to a bad fall. However, according to the report, there have been some nine happenings between 2009 and 2011 when incident command needed to be called.
In one such incident, an employee had to be extracted after falling into a cooling tower, one employee told New Times.
Before Dec. 10, Phillips 66 employed five health and safety shift specialists at the refinery, who worked onsite in 12-hour shifts. To ensure 24-hour coverage, there historically have been four groups rotating day, night, and weekend shifts.
All such specialists bring with them the most certifications of any refinery employee in terms of safety: Each is a certified emergency medical technician with extensive background in emergency response, having undergone certifications from the Federal Emergency Management Agency regarding the agency’s Incident Command System, hazardous material certification, rope rescue, Cal/OSHA training for hazard recognition, scaffolding competency, and a host of other certifications that must be renewed and maintained.
They essentially act as organizers of the Santa Maria Refinery’s emergency response crew, as well as coordinate hazard prevention and maintain and test the plant’s safety equipment. They’re additionally responsible for facilitating safety training to employees.
And though the facility’s five current health and safety shift specialists, including Gallizio and Garcia, declined to comment for this story—due to the ongoing uncertainty of their current employment status—there was no shortage of other employees from different areas within the plant willing to attest to the specialists’ value as long as they remain anonymous, due to Phillips’ policy about talking to the press.
“They far exceed anything we’ve ever had on our plant,” one operator said on condition of anonymity. “They walk the walk.”
But the most telling perspective is from Phillips 66, which in October 2011 published a glowing article in Spirit Magazine, its employee newsletter, about the five specialists at the Santa Maria Refinery. In it, the company describes how the “two-hatters”—as they’re affectionately called for wearing more than one proverbial hat around the refinery—not only ensure the safety of employees, but also volunteer with various local safety agencies in their time off and “exemplify the company’s SPIRIT values to the fullest.”
Each of the specialist team’s members has past work experience or currently works as a reserve for local agencies such as CalFire or the SLO County Sheriff’s Department’s search and rescue team, as well as municipal fire departments. Together, the article states, the specialists have been “crucial” in fostering joint training exercises between the company and local agencies.
By all accounts, each man is revered in the community. Gallizio was named Firefighter of the Year by the Oceano Elks Lodge in 2005.
“By working in fire and emergency rescue for outside agencies, these five employees bring years of expertise and knowledge to [Phillips 66],” the authorless article reads. “This level of expertise and knowledge has brought the Safety and Emergency Response department [at SMR] to a level of extreme professionalism.”
Behind the scenes, however, the relationship between management and its safety professionals was less than stellar. Following Swader’s accident, the health and safety specialist team became engaged in a fight to maintain the amount of training and safety equipment upgrades that had won the facility national recognition, and the department soon became seen as a drain on the bottom line, according to several sources familiar with the situation.
According to e-mail threads obtained by New Times, members of the team began bringing concerns of decreased training opportunities and other safety-related issues to refinery management. According to the e-mails, Refinery Manager Rand Swenson told one employee that he disagreed that safety was taking a back seat, and said he was confident the facility was maintaining a “competent” emergency response team. Further e-mails and phone calls were taken to the higher-ups, with the same—or less—response.
To compound matters, the specialists, as at-will unrepresented employees, were subject to the financial whims of Phillips 66 management and a goal-oriented salary raise cycle that mandated, in order for any of the members to be approved for a raise, that one of them had to under-perform.
“It was explained that someone had to be ranked lower than someone else,” said one union official. “Then the next year it would be someone else. They would essentially take turns being turned down.”
Seeing which way the wind was blowing, the specialists sought help from the United Steelworkers Union, Local 534, the largest of two unions representing refinery employees, who gladly accepted them. But that wasn’t without a fight from Phillips management, who argued that the five were supervisors, and as such, not eligible for representation.
In December 2011, the National Labor Relations Board sided with the team, finding that they weren’t supervisors, but shared a “sufficient community of interest” with the steel workers union to be included. Their job, after all, was to protect the plant operators.
“They were getting to the point where they felt they had to have this protection,” one employee recalled.
Since they became members of USW Local 534, relations between management and the team have grown shakier. Last month, word came down: The five were being split up. Two would work the regular daylight shift as “safety coordinators” and the other three would be reassigned to the operations emergency response team, essentially the lowest position in terms of safety.
Along with the reassignments came severe pay cuts—some to the tune of $12 an hour less, according to knowledgeable sources. The changes were finalized Dec. 10.
In their place, management delegated their responsibilities to plant employees, though at a far lower degree than what the health and safety shift specialists did, according to USW staff representative Ron Espinoza.
Instead of having an all-encompassing EMT and search and rescue-certified expert on site, now the only EMT on site will be the front gate security guard, according to union reps and plant employees. The problem with the guard assuming response duties, they said, is that guards aren’t equipped or authorized to access many of the higher-risk areas of the facility.
Additionally, the health and safety team secured a radio that would allow them to communicate directly to local emergency response agencies, as opposed to calling 911 and being rerouted through the California Highway Patrol.
No gate guard could be reached for comment on the reported new duties, as of press time.
“We do believe it’s retaliation,” USW staff representative Espinoza told New Times. “They’re coming after them, and doing a fairly good job at it.”
“They wanted to tell everyone how wonderful these guys are until they became part of a union,” Swader said of the Spirit article. “Then suddenly they weren’t needed any more.”
Espinoza said the union planned to appeal the decision, but that move remains up in the air for now.
In response to a long list of questions regarding the specialist team and safety conditions at the plant, Phillips 66 Spokesman Rich Johnson provided the following statement in an e-mail to New Times: “There is no value more important in our company than ensuring the safety of everyone who works at our sites as well as the safety of our neighboring communities. Over the past year, we have redistributed certain safety-related functions and responsibilities among personnel at the Santa Maria refinery, and there have been no staff reductions. We expect these changes will help maintain and improve the refinery’s high standards for safety and performance.”
One hand saysto the other …
As for Swader, it wasn’t the burns he sustained that boil his blood as much as the plant management culture surrounding his 2008 accident.
He credits the quick thinking and response time from Gallizio and Garcia with saving him from far more severe—and permanent—disabilities, but he cites what he calls the company’s rigorous and erratic work policy and his treatment upon his return, which he felt was shabby, as characterizing what he and others at the plant began to see as the “disconnect” between management and the workers.
Swader’s accident happened on a Saturday morning. Two days earlier, he said, his schedule was changed at the last minute to pull a night shift that Thursday, despite his normal daytime routine. Unable to sleep more than a couple of hours the following day, he was back at work early Saturday “a walking zombie.”
Experiences—or the risk thereof—like Swader’s have led his colleagues to voice their own grievances. In January 2012, members of the USW Local 534 took to the picket lines outside the plant’s gates to protest the management’s hard-line on their then-ongoing labor negotiations. One of the issues of contention: a “fatigue policy” for work schedules. And another: safety equipment improvements.
Plant operators seem to be upset over the reorganizing of the safety department, as well, as they’ll now be seeing additional job duties and training requirements on top of an already-full workload.
“I love this company, I obviously have no problem with Big Oil, [Phillips is] good to the environment—it’s just the way their mentality is,” one employee told New Times. “These [HSS specialists] make [the company] look better if an emergency happens, but there’s a calculated risk, and if they can get away with something, they will.
“It’s going to take somebody high in the chain to say stop. That’s the way these people think,” he added.
“People higher up are being made aware of these issues,” said another employee. “But everyone’s kicking the can down the road.”
More output, more risk?
On Dec. 13, representatives for Phillips 66 will go before the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission seeking modification of their existing permit to allow the company to increase overall output at the refinery by roughly 10 percent.
The company is asking the county to permit an increase from about 45,000 to approximately 49,000 barrels a day. According to the project’s environmental impact report, the changes would increase the amount of crude delivered to and shipped from the Santa Maria Pump Station to the Santa Maria refinery, as well as the volume of product pumped out to the Rodeo facility. There would be a corresponding increase in the volume of green petroleum coke and sulfur production at the site, and an increase in truck or rail shipments leaving.
Phillips 66 Spokesman Johnson told New Times in an e-mail that the plant’s existing equipment is capable of processing more crude oil, but the volumes the refinery processes are dictated by the current permit.
“This increase will help ensure the long-term viability of the refinery and the more than 200 jobs it supports,” Johnson wrote.
Since the application was first filed more than two years ago, SLO County Air Pollution Control District planning manager Aeron Arlin-Genet said there have been more public workshops on the EIR certification than any other similar project she can remember—all of which were sparsely attended.
Of the anticipated environmental impacts the expansion could have, only impacts to air quality were deemed “significant and unavoidable” in the project’s EIR. However, a county planner told New Times, the county and Phillips have worked out mitigation measures that would significantly reduce those impacts, and it appears the project will pass through the application process.
The report didn’t identify increased vehicle traffic as significant, and Murry Wilson, environmental resource specialist for the SLO County Planning Department, told New Times that staffers estimate the traffic increase to equate to roughly four trucks per day.
Wilson added that the only issue raised about the increased production would be noise impacts around the Santa Margarita Pump Station. In response to community concerns, Wilson said Phillips 66 installed a sound wall around the station as a sign of good faith.
CalFire Division Chief Rob Lewin—whose agency has jurisdiction over the area—told New Times he’s working with the state Fire Marshall’s Office as well as Phillips management to make his own assessment of the safety impacts related to the ramp-up. As far as the recent decrease in the presence of certified safety supervisors at the facility, Lewin said he was aware of some changes, but didn’t have enough information to comment.
“I’ve asked my folks to schedule a meeting with management to find what, if anything, has changed,” Lewin said. “We’ve always had good cooperation with [Phillips].”
Plant employees and their union reps told New Times they’re for the increase in throughput—but only if a change in management’s safety policy accompanies the increased workload.
“To then not have an around-the-clock safety team and still want to run 10 percent higher, that’s not safe. And it’s not responsible,” USW’s Espinoza said.
If the county signs off on the application, the matter would go back to the APCD on Jan. 23 for final sign-off on the environmental impact report.
It was difficult to convince anybody who works at the Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery—represented or at-will employees—to talk on the record about the current environment there. Many turned us down.
Employees are required to sign papers prohibiting them from speaking to the media. Those who did said it could mean their jobs. But despite the risk, they were eager to talk about what they see as managerial complacency in the hopes that bringing light to such an issue as safety—it does come first at Phillips, after all—might enact change.
Though Swader’s experiences with the company over the last few years haven’t been great, he isn’t completely soured on his time at the Santa Maria refinery. Despite the current direction he sees it going, he said, Phillips 66 and the workers it employs remain the best in the business, and the record they’ve maintained is something worth fighting for, he said.
And since his accident, refineries have begun installing splash guards over components that, had they been in place that April morning in 2008—fatigue or no fatigue—would have prevented the majority of burns to his face and hands.
Now a staff representative for the International USW, Swader remains on a leave of absence from the refinery as he attends to union business up and down the state. Despite concerns from long-time colleagues that he may not be welcome back to the plant after opening his mouth, he’s continuing to take his critiques of Phillips management straight up to the company’s top rung.
“Look, I’m 62 and I’m still working,” Swader told New Times. “It’s not about me. … And if they do fire me? Well, that’s neither here nor there. I think I probably would have come out with it anyway.”
Staff Writer Matt Fountain can be reached at email@example.com.