The union representing North Atlantic Refining Limited (NARL) employees is calling out the provincial government for ignoring concerns reminiscent of the troubling conditions leading up to a fatal explosion at the Come By Chance refinery in 1998.
"Our concerns over health and safety have fallen on deaf ears for too long. The government's duty is to protect working people. They're shirking that duty," said Glenn Nolan, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9316.
The current NARL ownership group purchased the refinery in 2014. For the better part of two years, the union has repeatedly raised health and safety concerns to government officials and cabinet ministers, including most recently Sherry Gambin-Walsh, minister responsible for Workplace NL.
"The minister says her staff are looking into our concerns, but the government has known about these issues for so long, we can't keep waiting. We need action," Nolan said.
The union's concerns include its contention that both the government and NARL have failed to live up to commitments to embrace a process safety management code of practice that was adopted by all three parties in 2014.
The process safety management system gives workers a right to be involved in planning process changes, developing safe work procedures, training and other aspects of process safety in the refinery.
"Our refinery became the first one in the country to adopt this process safety management system. But we've repeatedly raised concerns that the government and the company have not lived up to the commitments they made. Those concerns haven't been taken seriously by the government," Nolan said.
A public inquiry into the fatal explosion at the Come By Chance refinery in 1998 uncovered a dysfunctional and confrontational labour-management relationship at the refinery – particularly regarding health and safety issues – as well as a lack of provincial government involvement and oversight.
"It is clear that a wide gulf existed between the ground-level unionized employees and management before March 1998," the inquiry's final report stated. "Ground-level employees, in particular maintenance, safety and operation employees, almost without exception testified that they felt out of the loop when it came to planning and changes to operating and working procedures. This is nowhere more apparent than in safety issues."
The inquiry report cited a "union/management deterioration of relations to a point where employees described the situation as "us" versus "them" in the work environment. This can be seen in the minutes of the (health and safety) committee where employees often brought up matters and it is apparent that they were only dealt with slowly and sometimes not at all."
"We have been experiencing many of the same concerns that existed at the time of the tragedy," Nolan said.
In two recent investigations of workers' concerns, government health and safety officers conducted inspections of the refinery alongside management representatives but without participation of affected workers or their union representatives, said Perry Feltham, USW Local 9316 vice-president and chair of the union's health and safety committee at the NARL refinery. In each case, the inspectors endorsed company decisions and declared the workers' concerns resolved, he said.
"The government isn't even following its own rules," Feltham said. "An inspector lifted a stop work order related to emergency response, before the emergency response plan was approved and accepted by the government, which should not happen."
Union representatives were shocked to learn earlier this month of a significant change regarding NARL's policy for responding to a serious fire at the refinery. The union contacted government and company officials directly but has received no response to its questions and concerns.
Despite Feltham's elected positions as the union's vice-president and health and safety committee chairman, he has been barred from the NARL property since July.
Due to a workplace injury last year, Feltham was assigned to perform work that accommodated his injury. But last month the company sent him home, citing a lack of work. The company also changed his employment status to inactive and barred him from the property.
The union has filed a grievance to challenge the company's decision and is considering a human rights complaint based on provincial legislation intended to help injured employees continue working following an injury, Nolan said.
The union also is fighting a grievance over a recent decision by NARL management to suspend three veteran operators at the refinery. The operators were suspended after they had each concluded they could not sign a safe-work permit that would have authorized work they believed could be hazardous.
"This is a very troubling message to send to workers,” Feltham said. “If they sign off and somebody gets injured, or worse, they'll be the ones who get blamed. If they don't sign off, they're suspended.”