A plant history riddled with safety hazards and a another blast in four years at the Phillips chemical plant in Pasadena, Texas has prompted two employees concerned about safety to come forward.
In an interview with the Houston Chronicle published April 1, Jimmy Easter and Steve Cadena said they were worried that they might loose their jobs, but in the wake of an explosion that killed one co-worker, injured 74 others and shut down the K-Resin section of the complex, they said they cannot keep quiet any longer.
Easter and Cadena, both general mechanics, said late last week that they have tried to work with Phillips management for years to iron out their safety concerns. The company, however, continues to use stopgag measures that place workers' safety at risk, they told the Chronicle.
"We're at our wits' end," said Cadena, adding that they didn't know what else to do but make their concerns public.
The two, who have been active on safety and health committees as part of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers International Union, said Monday's blast, the death of their friend Rodney Gott and serious burns suffered by friends were the determining factors in deciding to talk publicly.
Cadena and Easter, and other Phillips employees, declined to be interviewed by the Chronicle last fall about safety measures at the complex as the 10th anniversary of the October 1989 explosion approached.
That blast, in the polypropylene section of the plant, killed 23 workers and injured 130.
"If we would have gone public or said something, or if we would have fought the company a little harder, maybe this wouldn't have happened," Cadena, a 9-year Phillips employee told the Chronicle. "We feel bad about it. I feel that I owe the families. We've got a little blood on our hands."
Easter and Cadena said they were not surprised that another fiery explosion occurred at the 640-acre complex.
The complex has been investigated numerous times by OSHA, including last June when an explosion in the K-Resin plant killed two workers and injured four.
Cadena told the Chronicle that plant management has ignored many of his and Easter's concerns about safety.
For example, he said, he reported about two months ago that a valve in the K-Resin plant was leaking cyclohexane, one of three chemicals involved in the latest explosion.
Late last week, Cadena said, he found the valve leaking again and filed a safety grievance. He said management's answer to such serious problems is to use stopgag measures instead of repairing or replacing the valve, which might require a shutdown.
Phillips spokesman Jere Smith told the Chronicle that six safety grievances have been filed over the past two years regarding the K-Resin plant, five of them from one person.
He said the prestart safety review being performed the day of the explosion was for the startup of a reactor but "it appears the explosion was not in the reactor area."
Smith also said that leaking valves often are injected with a material to replenish the seals and stop the leaks.
The material, made by the Furminite Co., is used throughout the industry for short-term and long-term solutions, according to Smith.
Ray Skinner, area director for OSHA's Houston South Division, said he had never heard of stopgag measures being used to correct leaking valves.
"I wouldn't think that would be an acceptable practice," Skinner told the Chronicle. "The thing to do is to block the valve on either side, take it out and repair or replace it. Production wouldn't necessarily be shut down."
Cadena and Easter said their concerns have fallen on deaf ears.
"I believe management in K-Resin is not listening to the employees. That's the key," said Cadena. "They don't believe us. In the last nine years, they say Jimmy and I bring too much up there and that we're constantly throwing safety grenades and shooting arrows in the air. But the warnings have come true."
Management may not be able to ignore the employees' concerns any longer.
As the investigation into the explosion continues, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of a burned worker.
Also, along with OSHA investigators, FBI agents were called to the explosion site as reported by the Chronicle.
"They are investigating whether the integrity of the scene has been compromised," Smith told the Chronicle. "Phillips is cooperating fully in their investigation."