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Steve Smith

INTERVIEWERS: David Todd (DT) and David Weisman (DW)
DATE: October 15, 1999
LOCATION: Pasadena, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Lacy Goldsmith and Robin Johnson
REELS: 2064 and 2065

Please note that videos include roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Numbers mark the time codes for the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various unrelated off-camera conversation or background noise, unrelated to the interview.

DT: My name is David Todd and I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. It’s October 15, 1999 and we’re in Pasadena, Texas at the PACE [Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International] Union Local office and visiting with Steve Smith who has worked at the Shell Plant here in Deer Park for a number of years and has been active in the health and safety work as well that the unions have been involved in. And I wanted to thank you for spending time explaining what you’ve been up to.
DT: I thought we might start by talking about the kind of work you’ve done over the years and the places you’ve worked. I understood that you started as a Cat [Catalytic] Cracker Operator trainee and moved onto other kinds of work. Can you describe what you’ve been doing and…
0:02:19 – 2064
SS: I—I can and I’ll try to do it in chronological order.
0:02:28 – 2064
SS: Started out and I was 19 years old, 1967, went to work at a company called Charter Oil. Now Charter Oil used to be Signal Oil and Gas. It’s a small—was a small refinery, a small player on the—on the Ship Channel, dangerous, very dangerous place. In fact, even by ‘60’s standards, this was a very, very dangerous place to work. And I realized that. They were also a represented place. They are our sister Local across town. 4-227 was the—was the Local and that’s the first time I joined the union, was—was there. ’69 was the first nationwide oil bargaining strike so it took everybody out here on the Channel. We’re all on strike. When we came back off that strike, I put an application and ended up going to work for Shell Chemical in 1969. Worked in a resins plant and bid on various operating jobs. Finally signed into maintenance and I became an electrician, a journeyman electrician. In 1980, I became a instrument technician. They call us control systems now but it’s same thing. As far as union business goes, I became interested in health and safety because there was…can I get something to drink?
DT: Can we return to the kind of work that you did and maybe give us an idea of a typical day at your first job on the Cat Cracker?
0:04:25 – 2064
SS: Well you were—I was—of course, when you’re the Cat Cracker helper, you work outside. So I had responsibility for several pumps and compressors and you—you monitor those, you take readings, bearing temperatures, whatnot, make sure everything’s got oil in it, you do what they call making your rounds. If you see anything abnormal, you get with the board people and that’s whatever else they dream up for you to do basically. On a Cat Cracker, back then, when the Cat Cracker got upset, they needed cat samples. So you got catalyst going through there and you’d have to go up and—and get a catalyst sample, bring it down and they would analyze it. I’m sure they do that different now. I hadn’t been on a Cat Cracker in thirty years now but I’m sure they do that different but, back then, we’d climb up to the top of the Cat Cracker, get a cat sample. So it’s basically anything that the steelman wanted you to do was your job.
DT: What does a Cat Cracker make and how big is it?
0:05:30 – 2064
SS: Well a Cat Cracker takes crude oil and cracks it through high temperature and a—a reaction. And then it regenerates the old catalyst. So you have a—a fractionation unit which is the columns that distill. You have a reactor where the reaction takes place. Then you have a regenerator which is the three big vessels on a Cat Cracker.
DT: What kind of temperatures and pressures are you talking about?
0:06:03 – 2064
SS: Best I can remember, it was somewhere around 1100º in the regenerator and it’s all—all over the board on the fractionator, depending on what cut you get. You get light oils, gas oil (coughing) but that was an interesting job. That was my first operating job and I learned a whole lot but Charter Oil frankly was very, very dangerous place and there was no regulatory agencies back then. There was nobody making those companies do right. Pollution was at a premium. There was not much inspection if you—no comparison to what they do today. They just kind of ran those units kind of like you would run tires on your car, till they were—they were bare. And a lot of times they missed it a little and when they did you had a fire, explosion or whatnot. So that was kind of the operation of the day.
DT: Can you talk about some of the times when the tires blew or went bald?
0:07:25 – 2064
SS: Well I remember one night out there they burnt the—what they call a combination unit completely to the ground. I mean, it was a big fire. First big fire I had seen inside a plant. Scared the hell out of me. And I was nineteen years old when it…
DT: What was the experience like? How did it get started and how did people react?
0:07:50 – 2064
SS: I don’t really know because, back then, they didn’t do a whole lot of investigation, you know. It broke, burnt up. Just rebuild it, make some more product. They—they don’t—they didn’t investigate back then, root cause or anything like that. That was unheard of. So I have no idea what—what caused the fire. I’m sure it was a blowout, some line probably blew out, found an ignition source and away it went.
DT: You said later on you became an electrician. What did you do as an electrician?
0:08:26 – 2064
SS: Well I went through a apprenticeship, a Shell-sponsored apprenticeship and we maintained all the electrical equipment in the chemical plant. Depending on where you were working, there was—there were plantable jobs where you worked all over the plant and then there was unit-specific jobs which I did both over the course of being an electrician.
DT: And the electrical lines, power pumps and lights and what else?
0:08:57 – 2064
SS: Everything, I mean, the power—it—by this time—by—when I went into the electric shop, it was ’73, ’74, in that time frame. And they were even getting instruments that were electronic. See, prior to that, all the instrumentation was air. You—it was air pressure. That’s what controlled the plants. By this time, they were starting to get some even electronic instruments. So (coughing)…excuse me, I don’t know what’s going on with my cough…
0:09:39 – 2064
SS: But, I did that until and—and let me back up, in 1973, right before I went in the electric shop, that was right after OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] became a regulatory agency and we still hadn’t seen a real impact from that. They became an agency early ‘70’s. They were in place in ’73 but we really hadn’t felt an impact. We were still—it was still business as usual which was pretty dangerous place. I became interested in health and safety because we had a—had a nationwide strike, another oil bargaining nationwide strike. This time the focus was on health and safety. The union had this crazy notion that you could have health and safety committees, joint health and safety committees composed of both management and hourly people and they should set the tone for health and safety in these plants. Now that was ill received by the management in the companies. Their attitude, at the time, was we can manage health and safety and we really don’t need your help. But we—we went on strike, best I can remember, for about ninety days and ended up with the health and safety committee. And Shell’s version of that was okay, we got some con—contractual language. And we’ll live by that. You want a health and safety committee, half hourly, okay. You pick them. You want them trained once every two years, okay, we’ll do that. You want to meet once a month, we’ll do that. But you won’t have any power. We’ll see to that. And it rocked on like that from ’73 until the late ‘80’s. I—I was finally appointed to the health and safety committee (coughing)…excuse me, let me go get some more water…
DT: It may help us to understand some of the health and safety issues if you told us a little more about the kind of work you do that raises these health and safety problems and about the plants. Then you were getting into explaining what it was to be an instrument technician which I guess is the next post you had.
0:12:20 – 2064
SS: Instrument technician, they did a variety of things. The things that measure how much is going through the pipes. That all has to be maintained and has to be very, very accurate. And that’s a health and safety issue. If that’s not very accurate, you have no idea what you’re dealing with. And then you have stuff in the board on—they have a control board and your operators watch that control board and they know, by watching that control board, what levels, what pressure, what flow, they have going. And if all that’s accurate, they can—they can run that unit very efficiently. So our job was to make sure that that’s accurate and make sure the valves out there, the control valves, work. It’s probably the most technical of the blue collar jobs in the plants. It’s the one that’s probably the most technical.
DT: Can you go back and talk more about the health and safety committee that you were working on?
0:13:44 – 2064
SS: Well I really didn’t get on the Health and Safety Committee until the middle ‘80’s. When I got on it, it was a very adversarial situation. The represented people sat on one side of the table and the management people sat on the other kind of—other side. And we did everything but turn the table over. And I don’t think we ever accomplished anything.
DT: What disagreements and controversies did you have?
0:14:14 – 2064
SS: Everything. Basically we accused them of not caring about the workers, having unsafe conditions in the plant and knowing it. We’d stand on some pretty moral high ground. And they would sit over there and say we didn’t know what was going on and we were uninformed. And they run the place. So it was pretty dicey and that went on from—I got on there in ’84. It had been going on the—the past ten years. And it went on up until the late ‘80’s.
DT: What were some of the safety concerns that you had and health problems that you were worried about?
0:15:10 – 2064
SS: Well anything from improper inspection, leaving the potential for serious gas releases to environmental issues. When I first got in Shell, it was not uncommon for operators to cut stuff to the environment. If there was a—a pocket of gas that needed to be burnt off so you could insure efficient operation for the next couple of days, somebody would bleed it off. It was part of—that was part of the deal. Nobody thought much about it. But I think everybody realized, at some point, that the environment was paying the price for that. When I was young, I used to go with my dad and fish for speckled trout in Galveston Bay and we did very well. We caught a lot of trout. I noticed toward the ‘80’s you couldn’t hardly catch a fish out there. And it—it really wasn’t a mystery why. We had neglected the environment. And the Health and Safety Committee was dealing with all of those things or we were supposed to be. We really wasn’t because the company wouldn’t cooperate with us at the time.
DT: I think the Health and Safety Committee was created out of the strike, what were some of the concerns back then? Were there some explosions or fires that made you concerned?
0:17:06 – 2064
SS: On a national level, there—there were a lot of fires, explosions, releases. And this was a national initiative. This was not an initiative here at Deer Park and there was concern that there was nobody watching the store, that we were all so involved in making product that we wasn’t paying attention to things that get people hurt, that—things that have a detrimental effect on the environment.
DT: Were there Health and Safety Committees in other big industries? Like in the automotive industry that you modeled these committees off of?
0:17:55 – 2064
SS: No, not to my knowledge. We had a notion of what they should look like and when I say we, I’m talking about the international union. And they—they were all going to be different from location to location but we had a basic structure that we wanted them to follow. Now Shell didn’t follow that structure. Shell bowed up and we—we ended up with less of a structure than the other oil companies. Shell was real adamant at the time that we can manage our health and safety, although they wasn’t doing that at the time.
DT: That management could?
0:18:36 – 2064
SS: They—the management insisted that they could manage health and safety and the environment. Now they wasn’t doing it but they insisted they could. So it—it took a strike to get the language and our language was not as strong as some of the other oil companies. We—we settled for a little less language.
DT: Can you talk about the strike that all this came out of?
0:19:02 – 2064
SS: Well actually I think it was ninety days or thereabout. It was ugly. There were—I remember one time there was a family march on the gate. There was a—a picketing of all Shell service stations. Yeah it was—it was nasty. It was real nasty.
DT: Did they shut down the plant?
0:19:31 – 2064
SS: No.
DT: Did they bring in management or scabs or…
0:19:35 – 2064
SS: Yeah, all the above. Back then, one of the things that Shell did was keep the plant overstaffed for strikes. We struck a lot. We struck thirteen months or so in ’62. Struck in ’69. Struck in ’73. Struck in 1980.
DT: Were the strikes mostly about wages or were they about other issues?
0:20:01 – 2064
SS: It was all over the board. This particular one in ’73 was mostly about health and safety but there was also wages in there too. There was a—a, you know, a request for wages. So the strikes—some of them were economically driven and some of them were for other reasons. But we were known to—to go out. So they had management beefed up to the point where they tried to run the units. Now how efficiently or how good they run the units is arguably, you know, I don’t know how well they made the product is—I wouldn’t know because I was never in there.
DT: Do you remember in the days before the strike and through the strike that created this Health and Safety Committee, what scared people or worried them about the plant?
0:21:05 – 2064
SS: I’m not sure I understand the question.
DT: Were there certain units or processes or risks that a lot of the union members said that these things were dangerous?
0:21:21 – 2064
SS: In 1973, these plants were very dangerous. OSHA had not had the time to make an impact. There were chances taken to make product. So there really wasn’t one unit or one area. People felt strongly enough about health and safety problems that they were willing to go on strike for Health and Safety Committee, even though the Health and Safety Committee really was inefficient for years. There was a change in management’s attitude and I think that was probably also money-driven.
DT: Can you explain why things changed and became more cooperative?
0:22:25 – 2064
SS: Not sure why I noticed the change. We used to go to the table and say we’re getting too many people hurt, getting too many people hurt. And they would kind of say, well it’s the kind of the nature of the business. You know, we’re not an ice cream plant. We’re making product here. That’s going to happen.
DT: What kind of injuries would people get?
0:22:43 – 2064
SS: All kinds. We had lost time injuries where people were seriously hurt. We had fatalities. I can remember some fatalities. Down to minor—very minor injuries but there were a lot of them and…
DT: When people got seriously injured, was it usually a fire or what would happen…
0:23:10 – 2064
SS: Didn’t have to be. Could be anything could fell. We didn’t have any real requirements for people climbing or just—it didn’t have to be a fire. Could be, you know, could be releases. I mean, you know, we’d cut something loose out there, it would knock a bunch of people down. They’d be in first aid, you know.
DT: Did you know any of those people?
0:23:35 – 2064
SS: Yeah. Yeah I knew them. Sure. It was—it was—it was a dangerous place to work. And we were telling them that and they wasn’t listening. Now, at some point, we walked in there one day and they started telling us we’re getting too many people hurt. And we said, say what? Didn’t know what to do with that. By that time, I was Chairman of the Health and Safety Committee.
DT: This is in mid ‘80’s?
0:24:05 – 2064
SS: This is in probably the mid to late ‘80’s. I would guess ’87. Got a new manager from Health and Safety. The—the old style Health and Safety Manager at Shell was a Production Manager that they just made over Health and Safety. The Health and Safety Department was really a group of good ole boys that knew how to do the fire truck thing if we had a fire. They knew how to come sniff an area that thought maybe they had a flammable gas present.
DT: Can you describe the fire brigade and the sniffing that might go on?
0:24:50 – 2064
SS: Well they—they headed up the fire brigade. The fire brigade, back then, depending on what job you were on, if you were on a certain job, part of that job might be to be on the fire brigade. That was the way they did it back then. And the Safety—what we called Safety men back then, they were the guys who were the—if there was an emergency, they were the leaders. And the people who were on those jobs fell in behind and went down and—and dealt with the fire. Now those guys on those jobs had very little training. So, you know, it was kind of up to those safety men to get the fire truck going and telling them what to do.
DT: This is a private fire company?
0:25:40 – 2064
SS: Yeah Shell’s. Most of these plants, if they’re very big at all, have their own fire trucks, their own fire equipment and—and their own group that operates them in case of an emergency. But, back then, it was a job specific thing as to whether or not you dealt with that or not.
DT: What would it take for the fire company to decide that they needed help from Pasadena or Deer Park’s fire department?
0:26:15 – 2064
SS: I’m not sure. I know they almost never did. Almost always, we handled it in-house. Part of that was they probably didn’t want the press. They—they liked to handle it in-house.
DT: Did you get much attention to some of the health and safety concerns you had in the ‘60’s, ‘70’s, early days?
0:26:42 – 2064
SS: The early days, there was no OSHA. Health and safety really was not a real concern. If you were working in a plant, it was thought that you had a well paying job and you ought to be tickled to death that you had it and they didn’t want to hear a bunch of whining about health and safety. In fact, when I first went to work there, whatever chemical you were dealing with, you wouldn’t burn your hand off that instant, they’d say it wouldn’t hurt you. It won’t hurt you. If it didn’t burn you or wasn’t abrasive, it wouldn’t hurt you. Now they didn’t know that it wouldn’t hurt you. In fact, we found out later on a lot of those chemicals, in fact, would hurt you real bad. But they’d say it wouldn’t hurt you. Then there was a product out there they—they—they called mostly water. Say what is this? Mostly water. So that’s the kind of mentality that we were dealing with in the ‘60’s and it went on into the ‘70’s. Now as soon as OSHA was able to make a presence, some of that started changing, started having people in there called industrial hygienists that actually started monitoring the air out there that the workers were in. There were some things that started happening but they were driven really by the government. The companies really never did that on their own. They just did—at the time, it just was not a big concern. And I don’t think for a lot of the workers it was. A lot of the work, we didn’t think anything about it. Hearing protection, good example, a lot of the older guys that I worked with for years, they’re all deaf. We worked in those units with no hearing protection. Didn’t think anything about it, you know. Anything that had a slow effect on your body, that wasn’t immediate, didn’t think anything about it.
DT: How did you first learn that some of these slow, low dose kind of chronic things had a bad effect on your health?
0:29:01 – 2064
SS: Well we started learning more and more as—as we went. There were experts in the field that were starting to put out things and, like I say, the—in the mid to late ‘80’s, they decided that they would like to have some kind of partnership on the Health and Safety Committee. Now that was very difficult for us to do. We were used to the adversarial role. We knew how to do it, felt comfortable doing it. To suggest that we were going to cooperate with them somehow didn’t feel right. So we didn’t do it immediately even though they were willing. We were unwilling. Now as time went on, we got a new Health and Safety Manager and I didn’t trust him, he didn’t trust me. I was Chairman of the Health and Safety Committee. But as time went on I worked some issues with him and I found out that he could keep his work and he found out that I could keep my word. We developed a little bit of trust and we started working some issues. Eventually we built a Health and Safety Committee that actually was fairly well respected and actually solved problems out there.
DT: Can you talk about some of the problems you worked on in the first days when things seemed to be more cooperative?
0:30:47 – 2064
SS: We would assess a situation. If we came in with a concern, we started putting them into minutes and working them through to completion or we came to an impasse on them. One or the other. Whether it be pipe inspection and one part of the plant was not adequate. We would—we’d take a look at that and if together we realized that that is a problem, we worked it. If we disagreed, we agreed to disagree. So we didn’t always come to the same conclusion but by working together, it—we finally seemed to have the same goal. The company desired to get lis—less people hurt. And we desired to get less people hurt. Now whatever drove that, there’s a—that—that’s a big argument in itself is what drove that for the companies.
DT: What do you think the possible reasons for the companies to want to lower injuries?
0:32:00 – 2064
SS: Well I think it’s—it’s pressure from a lot of areas. Probably insurance companies, probably a lot of areas. I think some people sincerely wanted to go with the correction in management. I think we were coming out of the stone age. People were changing a little bit. It seemed that that was just kind of the focus. And we didn’t do it very well to begin with. I mean, we went to other locations. Health and Safety Committee would go to other locations. It seemed to be doing better and we’d try to figure out how to get better. And, you know, when I first went to work at Shell it was totally acceptable to blow somebody off a bicycle with a fire monitor. That was okay. that was—that was play. Well that’s unheard of today. We just don’t—that kind of behavior. So we had to—we had to adjust our behavior, the workers. We were part of the problem and management had to commit to do the right thing which isn’t always easy for management because they’re dealing with margins and dollars and cents. So with the same goal in mind, we seemed to start working together. We seemed to start going a good direction. But you have to remember, this was all born out of a strike and it took years before we got there. There was still a lot of—lot of resentment.
DT: Could you talk about how issues got on the table at one of these Health and Safety Committee meetings?
0:33:55 – 2064
SS: Almost always through an employee complaint. Something would be out there that was frustrating to the employee and they felt like it was a health and safety issue. So they would get aholt of one of the Health and Safety Committee people and the Health and Safety person would bring it forward and put it on the table as a—as a health and safety issue. The other avenue that we had is we, at each Health and Safety meeting, we toured one unit of the plant. We actually audited a unit. So then we could see something there that would be an immediate concern and bring that back to the table. So there were several ways that it could get there and, once it was there, it was in the minutes and until it was worked until completion or we disagreed.
DT: Did the people who found these problems, that reported them, did they feel any pressure for or against reporting? Was it a difficult thing for them to bring these things up?
0:35:09 – 2064
SS: Depends on the type of individual. We—we have protection under a contract. They’re not going to fire you. Okay. That’s pretty obvious that they’re—they’re not going to retaliate if you bring something forward, even if it turns out to be bogus. Turns out we go investigate and it’s really not a big deal. That—there’s no retaliation as far as employment but there is a belief that if you do a lot of that that if a—say a staff position comes open that you probably wouldn’t be a candidate. You would be observed as somebody that maybe wasn’t on the team. So it’s all over the board, depending on what kind of person you’re dealing with. A lot of people felt comfortable bringing those things forward. A lot of people didn’t. I’m just talking about to the in-house Health & Safety Committee. Now going to the media is a different thing. You’re talking about going outside to the news media with something, that’s a different deal. I think people did feel threatened about doing that. It was done occasionally but there was some concern of what would happen if you did that.
DT: How would somebody feel driven to take it to the media?
0:36:39 – 2064
SS: Well if they felt strongly enough, in fact, recently we had a unit at Shell that was going through some job redesign and it’s a fairly dangerous process and some people felt strong enough to make some statements in the paper.
DT: Job redesign is when the unit starts making a different kind of product. What does that mean?
0:37:04 – 2064
SS: No what the buzz word job redesign means is cutting a job out. Redistributing the work where you have one less person. Okay. And I think there was some people on that unit that felt like that was—that particularly design was a detriment to the health and safety of the plant. And they felt strongly enough where they started making noise to everybody, the Health & Safety Committee, the news media. They went to OSHA. OSHA was in the plant. So that’s—people who really believe that there was a problem. There’s a certain kind of person out there that would go the media if it was something they believed in strongly enough. There are people out there that wouldn’t think about doing that. So it’s all over the board, depending on what kind of person you’re dealing with. We try—we try to handle stuff in-house. Most things we can—we can nowadays I believe. Course, anybody can complain to OSHA and I think the company recognizes that. They have a right to go to the regional office of OSHA and say, we got a problem. Once OSHA gets out there, they assess how big the problem is or if, in fact, there’s a problem at all.
DT: Have OSHA or the Health & Safety Committees or media learned about many problems involving people being reassigned or staff cutbacks or outsourcing. Is that a common health and safety issue?
0:39:12 – 2064
SS: Yes especially—that—that’s the one that we have now. That is these companies are wanting to do more and more with less and less. They’re—they have made great technical advances. They have computers now that are very, very sophisticated and there is an argument that you can do with less people and still do safely. But there’s a fine line and so there’s a—there’s always an argument when you go that route. Are you doing a responsible thing? So that’s—that’s going on today.
DT: Can you give an example of how staff has changed as things have gotten more updated? How many people used to work at a plant like Shell, how many people work there now?
0:40:11 – 2064
SS: I would say that probably half as many work in there now as when I went to work there. I’ve actually heard people in the industry say, not particularly at Shell, the Shell plant where I work, I’m President of the Local so I talk to a lot of people, in fact, I just came from a—a council meeting and one of the goals of one of the plants is to operate the plant with a man and a dog on the weekend. They feel like the instrumentation is so sophisticated that all they need out there is a man and a dog. And the man is out there to feed the dog. That’s his job, is to feed the dog. And the dog’s there to bite the man if he tries to make changes in the operations. I mean, I’ve—they’ve actually said that. So that’s as extreme as it gets. And depending on what company you’re dealing with, some of them are more into this Star Wars stuff than others. But they’re all trying to do more with less to be competitive in this worldwide market that they say they have. And we felt it at Shell as well.
DT: Do you ever see the effect of pressures on health and safety when oil prices crash and margins get much tighter?
0:41:49 – 2064
SS: Yes. Anytime the money’s tight it’s harder for them to justify spending a lot of money on health and safety issues. It’s kind of interesting at Shell right now where I work, we have a chemical plant and then we have a refinery. The chemical plant’s doing okay. Refinery’s losing money. So there’s a difference right now. I—I bid out to see how much it impacts health and safety because I’m not the health and safety chairman anymore so I’m not working right on health and safety anymore. I kind of work everything because I—I’ve changed jobs. There’s different—definitely a—they have to view things a little differently. When you’re dealing with no money as opposed to having some money.
DT: I guess what I’m curious about is if these health and safety problems are a cultural attitude thing on behalf of management or if it’s just a resource problem.
0:43:16 – 2064
SS: I say yes to both. I think it’s a cultural thing. I believe that they have finally got to the place to where they would like these places to be very safe. Money’s always an issue. There’s always that money factor in there. So it’s all over the board. You know, as good a safety performance as we have we blew the olefins unit up two years ago at Shell Chemical. Didn’t hurt anybody. Didn’t seriously hurt a soul. And if you look at the magnitude of that fire, we very well could of.
DT: Can you tell what it was like?
0:44:14 – 2064
SS: It—in my opinion, I went through the investigation with OSHA. I was, at the time, Health & Safety Chairman so I was the union rep. And then Shell had an internal investigation going on that also hourly people were on. I picked two hourly people to serve on the company investigation which, by the way, is a first. You know, we live in a world of litigation. So management was never comfortable putting hourly people on the company investigation. The plant manager wanted to do that, asked me for a couple of individuals and I gave him two names. But he had to fight with the legal eagles to do that. But, as it turned out, they were on the investigation and they did a good job and basically what happened was a valve come apart. A big, huge, check valve had a 3 ¼ inch stem that just the stem dislodged from the valve. So you had a 3 ¼ inch hole so we displaced a lot of hydrocarbon in a few seconds and it found an ignition source and away it went.
DT: Do you find that a lot of the accidents at the plant are because of the plant equipment getting older?
0:45:53 – 2064
SS: That’s a hard question to answer. I wouldn’t make that statement. I think, you know, if—and it depends on what you’re talking about. You say older equipment, if you’re talking old style instrumentation, that’s one thing and if you’re talking about old style hardware such as your valves and your piping and your stuff like that, I think the key is to having a good inspection department. It gets out in these units and looks for corrosion and looks for weak links in the chain. There’s always potential no matter how good you do it. This particular thing I—I really believe there was no way of knowing that on 10:00 on Sunday morning that that was going to happen. But it did. So it’d be real hard to place blame on that one. It’s just something that happened. Looking back in hindsight, that valve is a—is designed very poorly and we had them all over the plant and we’ve replaced them all and we sent out nationwide alerts, both the union and the company sent out alerts that if you’ve got these valves, you better look at them. And there’s a potential that it could jack the sta—shaft right out of the valve. That potential’s there. So I think we did all the right things once we found it, once we found what it could do. We’re just very, very lucky. There was a very, very young shift of operators on and they all did the right thing. They all got in their gear before they went outside. They got fire managers going and then they got in a defensive posture. Our fire crew did a magnificent job. They come in there and got it right out. Now I’d like to point out that our fire crew which I talked about earlier that was job specific, that’s not the case anymore. They’re a very highly trained bunch of individuals that volunteer to be—that’s a volunteer job now and you go through a—a extreme amount of training. So they’re very well trained fire team now as opposed to when I was talking about in the early days. Back in the early days, it was, you know, you had a couple people from the safety department that knew what was going on and it was almost—it almost was like the keystone cops out there trying to fight a fire. Not the case today. These guys are good. And they did a real good job of minimizing the damage to the unit.
DT: What sort of person volunteers for a job like that?
0:49:12 – 2064
SS: I don’t know cause I never have. I’m sure glad there’s some that like to though. A lot of these people that are volunteer fireman for the Municipal Governments around here, Pasadena Fire Department, Deer Parks Fire Department, La Porte’s Fire Departments, all voluntary. The people who do that voluntarily and they like it. They’ll go do it. They’ll run to a fire. They’ll get right in it. But they know what they’re doing. And I—I think ours ranks amongst the best. I really do. I believe that. We also have a emergency response crew. If somebody gets in trouble, they go get them. If you’re up on a column and something happens, have a heart attack, or you have something happen to you and you can’t get down, they’ll go up there and get you. They’re very good at it, you know. I’m—I’m happy to say they’ve been trained which is a big change from the past.
DT: How do they deal with regular old human, mortal fear?
0:50:25 – 2064
SS: I think if you’re trained well enough, they know—if you know what you’re doing the—the fear is not there and I’m—I’m just going on what I’ve seen because I’ve never been trained to the point that I would be unafraid to walk into a unit fire. But they know what they’re doing, they know how to cool things off. They know when they got a real problem. They know when to back out. They know when to hold ‘em, they know when to fold ‘em. I mean that’s—they know what they’re doing. And I think if you know what you’re doing in any—any given thing, you’re less likely to panic. It takes a certain kind of individual to want to do that. I’m just glad that we have them, really am.
DT: You mentioned there was a young crew on that olefins unit. Did any of them quit or try and get reassigned after the fire?
0:51:24 – 2064
SS: No. We—we brought some counselors in. They—some of them were pretty shook up. When we—of course, anytime you have OSHA in there, you do a lot of employee interviews. That’s part of what you do to find out what happened. You interview people who were there and couple of them broke down in them interviews. I mean, they—they were pretty shattered but they—they did the right kinds of things. We do a lot of grills, stuff like that out there and it—it paid off because they did the right things. But yeah, we had to deal with them later and it took us six or eight months to rebuild the unit and most of them hung right in there and brought the unit right back up.
DT: Can you talk about start-up and shutdown of units? I’ve heard that that’s always a dicey time?
DT: Where we left off, you were talking about the reconstruction of the olefins unit and would you talk about the risks and concerns that you have when you’re shutting down the unit or starting one up?
0:52:56 – 2064
SS: That’s always a dangerous time when you’re starting up or shutting down. Depending on the unit depends on, you know, how dicey it is but it’s—it’s always a—a time of concern. Usually you have double coverage, have a lot of people out there when you bring one up. And you’re—you’re looking for things, levels, and whatnot to go wrong. So especially a unit that’s been down that long. When—when one’s down that long and you rebuild it, you have a tendency to want to fix little things that you been wanting to fix for a long time. If this was over here or if this was over there, we’d have more efficient operations. It’d be easier to control whatnot. And you do those things. Well now you’re bringing up a new unit. It’s not gon’ run quite like it did because you’ve made changes. So when one’s been down that long, bringing it up is a big deal. It actually came up fairly smooth.
DT: Have you ever had trouble restarting units?
0:54:17 – 2064
SS: Yeah, we’ve had—through the years, we’ve had all kind of problems coming up. Lot of times you come up and go down and come up and go down till it finally gets up. It’s a—it’s—it’s an intense time when you do that as far as—and in the old days, that’s when a lot of releases occurred and something would overpressure a little. Back then a lot of the relief valves went to the atmosphere, you know, whereas now they don’t. They go somewhere else. And you’d have some relief valves paying off while you’re putting no telling what to the atmosphere.
DT: (?)
0:55:06 – 2064
SS: Well…
DT: (?)
0:55:09 – 2064
SS: Back then, a lot of times just blowing it to the atmosphere. Typically now, it goes to the flare. And you try to minimize that, you know, for the environment. I think we’re a lot more environ—environmental conscious then we used to be. But just due to the nature of the process, the nature of the—the work. You know, sometimes it gets out of the pipe.
DT: Can you compare what a new unit and one of these older grandfather facilities?
0:55:53 – 2064
SS: Well first of all, the olefins unit—the instrumentation is older stuff and we didn’t change that. We—we did not bring it technically up to the standards that they have now. We fixed all the damage and we made little revisions but we didn’t wholesale change out the instrumentation so it—it’s not like a—a real modern plant today. We have plans to change out the instrumentation in, I think, 2001 where we shut down. They have I—I don’t know how familiar you are with that but these newer units have these computer screens that these operators deal with. The control rooms, I mean, they’ve got them ergonomically fit for computer monitors. So you walk in the control room today and it looks like you’re in a bar. You know, all the lights are real dim and these guys are looking at computer screens. The old days there were, you know, a lot of controllers that you were looking at. You know, a lot of stuff, all of them going to a certain valve. All that comes through a computer terminal now. And we don’t have that at the olefins unit yet.
DT: What about the places that have old hardware, old pipes and valves…
0:57:38 – 2064
SS: They’re not as efficient as the new ones. It’s like shooting marbles or playing asteroids is the best way I can explain it. I mean, it’s all the difference in the world. Does that mean you can run a place with a skeleton crew of people? Well, that’s the argument. I don’t know. But as far as product control, as far as making something very efficiently, those new units are a lot—lot better. Where the argument gets into from a health and safety and environmental standpoint, how few people is the basic. I mean, how—how few can you live with and still be health and safety-wise correct? You know, we—we think about health and safety within the plant, you know, we also, you know, we have another customer, it’s the community, you know. You know, when Phillip’s blew up—blew the pitch window out of my house, you know.
DT: I don’t…
0:58:55 – 2064
SS: Phillip’s explosion. Phillip’s explosion is actually the explosion the—it was the event that brought about the PSM standard in OSHA. It’s really kind of what put teeth in some of the OSHA law.
DT: When was that and what blew up?
0:59:28 – 2064
SS: Phillip’s right here on the Ship Channel blew up, killed over twenty people. It was a massive explosion and fire. Affected the community. It was a big deal.
DT: How was it a big deal with community and at the plant?
0:59:42 – 2064
SS: Well it—one way it was a big deal to the community, there’s twenty-two people living out there that didn’t come home to their families. Also, like I say, my house is a mile off, blew the pitch window out of my house. It was, I mean, it shook the world around here when it went off. I was working at Shell the day it went off and we knew something happened immediately. It shook the whole place. Knew somebody had had a severe explosion. Went outside and it looked like a football field burning. It was just huge. I knew we’d lost some people that day. And that led to people getting on the Hill in Washington and talking about what are we doing here and that’s where the Process Safety Management, part of the OSHA law came from.
End of reel 2064
(misc.) There are no time codes on this reel so I did the best I could do in estimating the codes. My VCR usually does not match up exactly with time codes so they may not exactly fit with your time codes.
DT: You were talking about the explosion at the Phillip’s plant. Can you talk about the difference among the companies that your union works with and some of those the union’s not involved with and how the cultural operations of those plants might differ?
0:01:44 – 2065
SS: They’re, the best I can tell all over the board on this Channel, you’ve got the cesspool of the refineries which is Crown down there at—they’re probably one of the worst. They have a bad reputation. Had their employees locked out for a long time. They’ve had community get after them. They’re just a nasty, despicable little plant. And then you have some other companies that seem to take health, safety and the environment more serious. So it just kind of depends on what you’re dealing with. What kind of management scheme you’re dealing with. And in this particular Local, we’re all over the board. We have some of the plants that do a real good job in that respect and some of them, I think, are—are doing better but they’re not up—they’re not up with some of the others. So I think they’re all moving in the direction of doing better. And I don’t know what’s driving that. There’s a—there’s a lot of opinions on what drives that, whether it—whether it be compliance with the law, whether it be lower insurance rates or whether all of a sudden they’ve got real moral. I don’t know. But I think the trend is getting better. Some of them are a lot further along than others. That’s the way I’ve described it.
DT: Any ideas about why some companies lag behind and others are quite far ahead of the crew?
0:03:44 – 2065
SS: Probably couldn’t answer that. I would say there’s all kind of reasons for that. Just depends on philosophically how important health and safety and the environment is to the company. And, of course, that comes from their corporate headquarters. So it, I guess, it’s just how much emphasis you want to put—how much emphasis and how much money you want to put in that direction. Back in the ’70’s, early ‘70’s, there was very little. There was really nothing. We—we polluted, we took chances, we did whatever we had to do to keep the product moving. Today it appears that there is a—a direction to take the health and safety and the environment more serious. There’s been events that happened along the way. Phillip’s was one of them. They had one at Arco in Channelview. They had an explosion that killed some people there.
DT: What happened there?
0:05:06 – 2065
SS: I’m not sure but there was a number of people killed. There—I think bringing a unit up and it went, best I can remember. And it wasn’t a lot of time between that and Phillip’s. So that heightened the awareness that, you know, we need to look. The Process Safety Management piece of legislation, it—to comply with that takes a lot of energy. If you comply with it properly, it takes a lot of energy.
DT: What do you think has gotten the attention of the companies and the regulators?
0:05:55 – 2065
SS: Well I think these immediate events are, I think, they—they generate the news media. Okay. The long-term exposure problems are more of a case-by-case basis and there’s always an argument about what costs what, you know, when you’re dealing with that. We do live in a society of litigation and so as far as those long-term struggles, having the same impact as these emotional events, I’d say they probably don’t. I’d say they most—the—the event that maybe produces fatalities is really what gets the attention in the paper and the news media and drives some of the other stuff in the—in this country.
DT: Could you talk about some of the things outside of the companies and the unions that press for better health and safety and you mentioned that there’s a lot of litigation out there. Have there been any toxic tort cases that have gotten the company’s attention?
0:07:26 – 2065
SS: I’m probably not in the position to really know that. I’m sure there has. Over the years, if you look at mortality and morbidity studies of the people, there’s probably a good case that, you know, if you take leukemia, for example, and you’ve been around benzene, I’m sure they’ve had some cases where people have took them to task. That stuff’s not widely publicized and most cases lot of—lot of times they’re resolved through a mediation and the families feel like they got their point across if they stung them pretty good in the only place that they really understand which is the pocketbook. But that’s kind of hard to monitor. I, you know, so I—I couldn’t say. I’m sure a lot of that goes on though. I know Shell, at one time, put a lot of effort into tracking that, trying to make a case that the population that has worked out there and the—they did a morbidity/mortality study on people and, of course, they were trying to make the point that it was no different than the general pop—population of Harris County. Comparing eggs to eggs. So they made that argument, you know, how legitimate it was, I don’t know. I listened to it and sounded okay. I, you know, I—I—I feel like today due to the—the work that the industrial hygienists do, due to the work that the—the priority that people have put on using the proper PPE, [Personal] Protective Equipment, whatnot, that a lot of that will go away. Now back when I first went to work there, we were literally bathing in this
0:10:02 – 2065
stuff. Chemicals that those folks were telling us won’t hurt you. Well they ended up being serious carcinogenics and people came up with diseases. Then you get in the argument, was it a result of that or not. If you—you…
DT: Were they unusual diseases?
0:10:34 – 2065
SS: No, just, you know, whether it be some kind of lung cancer, for example, and you breathed a lot of stuff, you ate a lot of fumes. You were nose-hitting this stuff pretty consistently and you come up with lung cancer but you were a smoker. What caused what? You see, it—it gets—you get off into those kinds of arguments as to was it your personal lifestyle or was it the fact that you were in an environment that was not regulated? And there were serious carcinogenics present.
DT: Where do you come in?
0:11:17 – 2065
SS: I think in the early days there’s a very good possibility that a great deal of that was caused by people’s work environment. I think as time’s went on a lot of that’s been eliminated. We’ll have to see on the big scheme how that shakes out. Also I first came to work at Shell, everybody smoked, most people. There’s a little different attitude about smoking now than there used to be. There’s—smokers are in a big minority out there now. In fact, they feel like they get beat up, you know. You know, years ago, we smoked in the offices and, I mean, it was smoke, smoke, smoke out there. You can’t smoke in—indoors at Shell now. Car, plane, train or automobile, if Shell owns you’re not going to smoke in it. So the attitude’s changed on that too. In fact, like I say, the smokers feel like they’ve been discriminated against, they’ve got little smoking pens they go to now. Oddly enough that’s where some of the best rap is. That’s a—that’s a weird deal. I’ve found that some of the best conversation goes on in the smoking pens and I don’t know why that is.
DT: What sort of thing?
0:12:40 – 2065
SS: Anything. Some of the best rap is in the smoking pens. I frequent them all the time because I want to hear. I don’t smoke but I’m always in the smoking pens. Go figure. I don’t know.
DT: Have you found that people in the companies and in the unions are pretty open about their concerns? Do they talk to you?
0:13:02 – 2065
SS: Yes, they are. I do think your—your folks that are non-represented people that work out in the field like—a good example is maybe a pipe inspector and he’s out in the unit just as much as anybody else. I mean, he’s climbing around in that stuff. He would be less likely to step forward for fear he’d lose his job than a represented person and I think that’s—whether or not that fear is founded or not, I’m not sure is the case. But great deal of the individuals in that position would be, I think, probably unwilling to step forward because of that fear. Represented person’s not.
DT: Are the unrepresented people getting to be a large part of the workforce at Shell and at other companies down here?
0:14:08 – 2065
SS: Always have been, yeah.
DT: These are contract or…
0:14:11 – 2065
SS: No, no, these are our folks. You have a lot of people that work in what we call staff positions and they’re not represented by the Local. They work for Shell Oil Company but they do the work. They inspect pipes. Some of them are what we call unit specialists. They’re out there in the unit just like the operators making the thing run. So they’re out there and they’re as vulnerable as anybody else. But those are the types of people I’m talking about. I don’t think of those people as management. I think of those people as working people that are in positions that the company felt like should be staff positions but a lot of them are just pipe inspectors, for example, a lot of them used to be pipe fitters. They used to fit the pipe and they—we—we represented them. And they elected to take a staff position and be a pipe inspector. They’re still out in the unit and they’re still just as vulnerable as anybody else.
DT: What about some of the people who are outsourcing on a contract basis?
0:15:41 – 2065
SS: Those people are very vulnerable. Those people don’t open their mouth or they’ll be fired. Period. A lot of those folks are a victim. It’s the only way they can get a job and go to work in a plant is to be a contractor. It’s kind of a weird deal. When I was Chairman of the Health & Safety Committee, we struggled with the contractor. When—when something happened to a contractor out there, I felt real bad about it but I didn’t feel responsible because I really didn’t have any control. When something happened to a Shell person, staff or hourly, I felt both bad and I felt like I had done—not done enough. But contractor, we’re really not in control—they have their own Health & Safety people. They have their own Health & Safety programs. Some of them have not been trained, in my opinion, well enough to be out there. That’s just the nature of the beast.
DT: Do you think they’re getting some of the more risky jobs in the plants?
0:17:09 – 2065
SS: Absolutely. A job that’s going to be very risky a lot of times it’s, I think, management makes a decision to put them people on. For one reason, they won’t go to the Health & Safety Committee if something don’t look right.
DT: What’s an example of a risky job or another example of a real safe job at a big plant?
0:17:36 – 2065
SS: Well a fresh air job for a pipe fitter donning a fresh air mask and changing a blind on something that is in a service of a bad actor like hydrogen sulfide. Okay. It’s a dangerous job. An example of a fairly safe job is a—the same pipe fitter going out on a flange where there have been blocked valves and you have decommissioned the product. The operators have—have de-inventoried it.
DT: So there’s nothing flammable…
0:18:30 – 2065
SS: There’s nothing there. The job’s the same as far as you’re changing the same flange. One setting’s very dangerous and one setting’s not very dangerous. There’s always a chance. You always approach things like—you approach the pipe like it’s got something in it but you know 99% of the time it don’t. So…
DT: Are there some chemicals that you are more anxious about than others?
0:19:03 – 2065
SS: Oh absolutely, we got some out there that’ll take care of you right now. And others—others are not that big of a deal. Some of the chemicals—and—and what you have in a plant is material safety data sheets and—and that’s a result of a right-to-know law that actually some of that language was written by a past president of this Local, guy named Ed Watson, wrote some of that verbiage in there. But it—it is a summary of what the chemical is so there’s no more of that, it won’t hurt you stuff. You—you—you have the right to look and the operator has the responsibility based on what chemicals he has to regulate what protective equipment is worn on that job before he signs a permit to you. See there was a time there wasn’t permits, we didn’t have work permits, they just pointed, go do that. See all that’s changed now. The operator is in complete control of a situation to have a permit procedure that they follow and they dictate what the maintenance people wears out there, as far as, do you need goggles, is it something that is abrasive, is there a potential for respiratory problem, do you wear a respirator, do you wear a fresh air. They—they determine that because they know those chemicals in that unit. So yeah, it’s all over the board. Some chemicals are not a big deal. They won’t—they’re—they’re known not to be harmful. And then some others will kill you in a few
0:20:51 – 2065
DW: Someone said to us that they thought companies would flare things like out of spec products just to get rid of it or stuff like that and I’m wondering where in this triangle has the union, the management, the management, the corporations and then the environmental activists, where do the allies team up there?
0:22:09 – 2065
SS: You know, in the past, you have union, I guess for a better term, leadership and you had the environmental activists and you had management. And I think, in the past, labor would never—would never get on the same place with environmental activists because of jobs. The threat of losing the jobs. I think as time has rolled on, the laborer has—has been more willing to I think be a—a, I guess, for better term, a watcher of the environment. It’s kind of been a strange alliance. We’re strange bedfellows, laborer and environmentalist. But I’ve noticed that’s happened more and more. I’ve dealt with a lot of environmentalists over the past few years where that would have been taboo a decade or two ago. So I—I think we’re—we’re starting to realize, to a certain extent, we have the same objective. And I think, in the past, management was very active in trying to make sure that we didn’t realize we had the same objective. But if you’re trashing the environment to the point to where your kids and grandkids are not going to be able to live in it, big picture is you’ve failed. And I think labor realizes that. So I think—I think we’ve got beyond the—the adversarial relationship that we used to have with environmentalists. I think now it’s—it’s—it’s more of a accommodating relationship.
DT: What do you think labor and environmentalists have in common and where do you think they separate and go different ways?
0:25:06 – 2065
SS: Well I believe both groups are very interested in keeping the water or the air sound. Not polluting it. Making sure that communities are not threatened in any way. That we live—that’s where we live. We live in these suburbs. So I think we’re all pretty much in common there. I think, a lot of times, we feel like that going into the millennium that now we can make product safely due to a lot of things, due to government regulations, due to, I think, the people are better trained. I think the management has a different attitude. So we believe we can make the product and not pollute the environment. I’m not so sure the environmentalists believe that. I think I’ve known a lot of environmentalists from the pretty objective type of person to the wild-eyed ones. But I—I believe they question whether or not these plants can operate in an environmentally safe mode. And I think laborer in approaching the next century believes they can. I think that’s where they differ.
DT: In the past management would try and drive a wedge between the laborer and the environmental community.
0:27:02 – 2065
SS: Well they were threatened with jobs. That’s what they always did. You know, gosh if we do this, we’re going to go out of business which was not the case. You know, way back when I first came in the industry, frankly these—these oil companies didn’t give a damn about the environment, in the ‘60’s and in the ‘70’s. They didn’t give a damn about the environment. Now whatever has changed that over the years, I’m not sure but the attitude has changed a great deal. They want do a lot of partnership in the areas of health and safety, in the areas of environment. They seem to have seen the light. What’s caused that’s anybody’s guess. I’d—I’d be afraid to even make the assumption.
DT: How are relationships these days between these big plants and some local communities in Deer Park, Channelview, the neighbors that surround those plants?
0:28:28 – 2065
SS: Well I—I think and—and let me use Shell for an example because I work there. Shell in Deer Park, they’ve got a love fest going on for years. They have pumped a lot of money in the community. The mayor worked for Shell for years. Is that a bad thing? I don’t know. It seems that they had a working relationship the past fifteen years, I’d say it was a very health situation. Before that, I’m not sure. I think if you look at these—they have these emergency response groups within cities, I forget what they’re called but, most of those have officials from the plants on them. And a lot of those meetings are hold—held in the daytime where your representative person is out at work, strangely enough. Now but I—I think they do play a big part in the communities nowadays. I think they feel like they have to. But yeah, I think—I think they—they’re a very big participant.
DT: What about the citizens in those communities that live adjacent to the plants? Do they have a different attitude from the Chamber of Commerce or the city leaders?
0:30:30 – 2065
SS: Mixed bag. Got a few out there that are pretty vocal. You know. You know, they will be screaming every time there’s a little release and there’s some that I believe feel like Shell, Deer Park does a good job of keeping stuff in the plant. So it’s a mixed bag. And—and Shell’s, let me point out, they’re one of the better ones. I’d say they don’t feel that way about Crown.
DT: What’s the problem there?
0:31:06 – 2065
SS: I think they’re still living back three or four decades ago at Crown. I don’t think they give a damn about the environment. I don’t think they give a damn about the health and safety of their own people, just from what I’ve heard from some of their own employees. So it depends on what company you’re talking about a lot. So I think it’s—on this Ship Channel, I’d say it’s all over the board. I think the community feels pretty good about some companies, maybe not so good about the others. Depending who—who lives next to them, you know.
DT: What about some of the other players like the regulators? What’s their role and attitude towards the companies and towards the union?
0:32:03 – 2065
SS: Repeat the question.
DT: OSHA seems to have been very active in trying to make these plants a safer place to work. What’s the relationship nowadays?
0:32:23 – 2065
SS: Despite the fact that they’re very understaffed, their presence is felt. Some of the companies has went as far as to try and to partnership with them. Some of them just deal with them but I believe that they have done a lot in the last twenty years is getting us to where we’re at. We have a very active area director, Ray Skynnard, works with this Local. I’ve—I could call Ray Skynard at any time and talk to him. He’s been very available. We have a, what we call a Local partnership here where we deal with some issues across the board and Ray is a membership of—member of that partnership so, I think the communities feel real good that OSHA’s around. Now I will point out that they are understaffed due to budgeting. That’s just the political water that we’re in. There’s probably more game wardens in Galveston Bay than there are OSHA compliance officers in the State of Louisiana and Texas. And that’s what we’re dealing with but I think they do a good job with what they’ve got in this area.
DT: What kind of issues have gotten OSHA’s attention exercised the most? What sort of things have they been concerned about?
0:34:13 – 2065
SS: It’s always the—the event that’ll get them right—right out there. When the olefins unit blew up, they were there within the day. We immediately had an OSHA investigation and—which I was part of. So they get out there on an event. Now most of the other stuff is generated through employee complaint. If words like imminent danger are used, it raises their eyebrow. They’ll come quicker.
DT: Are these anonymous complaints?
0:34:52 – 2065
SS: Yeah, can be. Most of the time they are. If a contractor makes on, you can bet they are. Sometimes our people feel comfortable enough, if they’re represented people, they’ll—they’ll put their name on there.
DT: What’s the sort of thing that rises to the level of imminent danger?
0:35:20 – 2065
SS: It’s in the eye of the beholder. Give you an example, one time a situation and I won’t go into the situation but it looked pretty bad and an operator at Shell got a holt of me on the weekend and got to talking about something they were going to do. And I told him if you feel that strongly, this was an experienced operator, in fact, the guy was on the Health & Safety Committee, call OSHA and use the term imminent danger, if you feel like it’s that big of a deal. As it turns out, there had been a lot of prep work and a lot of stuff that the company had done to make sure that was safe but they didn’t tell that operator. They didn’t communicate that. And a lot of times that’s what happens. There’s a—there’s no communication or a miscommunication. A lot of times the company has done the steps necessary to make sure this very odd situation is contained and then they don’t tell the operator. Well the operator don’t know what they’ve done. All he sees is this—this stuff. So he calls OSHA with imminent danger. So a lot of that can be a miscommunication but anything that’s going to have a severe impact, possibly cause one of the events is, in my mind, what’s imminent danger. Something that could create a—a very serious health hazard. That’s imminent danger. Something that maybe even could cause a fatality.
DT: Could you talk about what you see coming down the line?
0:37:48 – 2065
SS: I think the number one thing is downsizing. There’s a notion out there that if you have enough technology, you can do with a lot fewer people. There may be some merit to that thought but there’s going to be a lot of issues around what is the optimum level. This notion that you can run a plant with a man and a dog on the weekends is insane. And that is the extreme case. So I think the challenge that we’re going to have is technology versus employees, how safe is it? How safe is it? Once you—once you have an uh oh and you put a big vapor cloud on one of these communities, you have screwed up and if you miscalculated that, you’re going to have to deal with it. So I see that as a—a big challenge in—your engineer types, they like this technology. They think it’s neat. And it is—it is cool, you know. I mean, they’ve got—my kids have got toys that are far out. I mean, it—it’s neat. But engineers just really love the stuff and they’re spending a lot of capital putting it in. And the payback that they’re justifying it with to management is it’s going to replace X amount of people. You better be careful about that. You better be careful about that. And I think that’s a situation that’s going to be one of those hard ones we got to deal with.
DT: You said you’ve got kids, do you think it’s a safe enough place that you’d recommend them working at the plant or along the Ship Channel?
0:40:03 – 2065
SS: Depends on the company. I—I really wouldn’t have a problem with my kids working at Shell where I work. That’s the one I could assess best because I’ve been there everyday. I damn sure wouldn’t have wanted them to work there thirty years ago. I was a young guy, didn’t know what I was dealing with. But I’m—looking back in retrospect, it wasn’t no place to be. Nowadays, with all the work that’s been done, I think that some companies, oil companies, chemical plants, are probably good places to work. I wouldn’t want my son or daughter working at Crown. I mean, I just would not.
DT: What is your favorite place outdoors?
0:41:16 – 2065
SS: Galveston Bay. I love it.
DT: What do you enjoy out there?
0:41:22 – 2065
SS: I like the serenity of the—of the bay. I enjoy—there’s a certain kind of wildlife out there that you don’t see anywhere else. And maybe it’s because I did it with my dad when I was very young but from the jetties all the way into—all the way into lower and upper bay, it’s just a real neat place. And that’s my favorite spot.
DT: Let’s keep it that way.
0:42:00 – 2065
SS: Well that’s—that’s the deal. I—I—I really think we—we need to pass that onto future generations. The thought of the bay going away is just something that I couldn’t handle, I’m afraid.
DT: Well thanks for spending time with us today. I appreciate it.
0:42:17 – 2065
SS: I—I’ve enjoyed it.
DT: I appreciate it.
End of reel 2065.
End of interview with Steve Smith.