Building on success in passing worker safety legislation in CA: Union hold National Safety Forum
Recent gas pipeline explosion catastrophes in San Bruno, CA, Philadelphia and Allentown, PA, highlight the need to beef up regulations and empower utility workers to play a greater role in protecting public safety. Ensuring pipeline safety becomes even more critical as natural gas commands a growing role in powering our nation.
UWUA is an Important Player
The UWUA is recognized as an important player in promoting gasworker and public safety. Most recently, California Locals 132, 483 and 522, representing SoCal Gas workers, succeeded in drafting and helping to pass safety legislation into law there. It requires each gas corporation to develop a plan for the safe and reliable operation of its commission-regulated gas pipeline by the end of this year. The law also mandates a role for gas utility workers in developing this plan.
Building on this success, the UWUA took the next big step in promoting worker safety, hosting the union’s first ever Gas Pipeline Safety Forum Feb. 7 – 8 in Phoenix, Arizona. Delegates in attendance represented the estimated 15,000 gas workers who are a part of the UWUA.
The ambitious event was organized to inspire other locals to follow California’s lead in creating and pushing worker safety legislation, as well as bridge the educational gap between veteran gasworkers and the growing number of newer, younger gas union members in the industry.
“We are standing on the precipice of a major shift to natural gas to power our nation’s industries and homes,” UWUA President Michael Langford said after the conference. “The choices we make now will either ensure our resources and manpower are harnessed for the benefit of the many or the few. We want to make sure our members are part of the decision-making process to ensure the greater good and protect themselves and the safety of the communities they serve. This two-day gathering was a remarkable event and got us on the right path to do these things.”
Utility Workers, a Valuable Resource
The need to empower utility workers in ensuring safe standards and protecting public safety was further validated by the California PUC when, on Jan. 25, 2012, it wrote, “Gas utility employees are knowledgeable about the day-to-day work activities of the gas utilities, and are invaluable sources of information regarding the safety and reliability of the gas system,” reiterating that there’s a “need to encourage a dialogue between gas utility workers and this Commission about gas safety and reliability…”
This recognition came as the California PUC’s safety division found that PG&E violated state laws and safety regulations (following the San Bruno explosion), releasing a report in January, describing PG&E’s corporate culture as one “that emphasized profits over safety.” PUC auditors say PG&E collected $134 million from ratepayers since 1997 for improvements that were not made, that the money was instead spent on bonuses and stock options for PG&E executives. And on Jan. 28, state regulators fined PG&E $16.8 million for failing to perform gas surveys in the wake of the deadly explosion.
Following that, two veteran welders told the California PUC in February that they had serious concerns with what they saw while working on PG&E’s transmission pipeline last year. Welder Marshall Worland said, “I had the opportunity to look inside the old piping, which I understand was originally installed in 1949.” He described the weld quality as “truly terible… If the San Bruno pipeline was like the one I inspected, I’m not surprised it failed.”
Advancing the Union Agenda
The drawing back of the curtain revealing PG&E’s negligence set an appropriate stage for UWUA gasworkers as they gathered to discuss the future of their jobs and the industry.
“My hope for this conference was to give all the participants a big picture view of what’s happening in the industry,” UWUA Regulatory Affairs Director Carl Wood said, continuing, “Beyond that, I hope it gave people ideas on how they can advance the union’s agenda, both at the state and federal level. The gas industry needs to be given the seriousness it deserves. We need to address employee human factors, especially at a federal level. There’s also a generational gap. Expectations, styles and culture between veteran and less experienced workers are different.”
Wood continued, “Andrew Weissman, who usually speaks to investor groups, commented to me afterwards that, in terms of knowing about the industry, ‘utility workers are the most knowledgeable group, they asked the most penetrating questions,’” says Wood. “He stuck around and interacted, took questions, chatted with people afterwards. We had top California state regulator, Michelle Cook, speak. She stayed the whole conference.”
“We’re making people aware of what gas is, they don’t give it any thought,” says Charlie Rittenhouse, president of UWUA Local 69, representing 1,000 Dominion gasworkers in NY, PA, VA, WV, OH and MD. “Legislators need to address the issues. For example, there are no laws for manning a compressor station. There’s a machine pumping thousands of pounds of gas, the nearest person controlling could be thousands of miles away. There’s also a younger workforce coming on, they need training.” “PHMSA [U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration] welcomes the opportunity to receive input from utility workers on a number of issues concerning the safety of the pipeline infrastructure they work on every day,” says Linda Daugherty, who explained that with a brother who is a member of the IBEW, worker safety is important to her. “Utility workers will continue to play a key role in Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s Call to Action to address the rehabilitation, requalification or repair needs of high risk pipeline infrastructure throughout the country. We look forward to a continued dialogue with utility workers to enhance pipeline safety.”
At a Crisis Point “We’re at a crisis point,” says Mark McDonald, a gasworker for 20 years and member of Local B318 in Beverly, MA. He’s also been president of the New England Gas Workers Association (NEGWA) for seven years. The organization is made up of some 3,000-pipeline gasworkers from different unions. McDonald recently drafted language for four pieces of pipeline gas safety legislation in Massachusetts. “Since the deregulation of the gas industry, staffing is reduced 25% nationwide. I was at the San Bruno and Allentown, PA explosions. I understand companies take the position that they want to save money, but there’s got to be a line that’s drawn between saving money and public safety. While we lost lives, we have to do something. People are fed up. The time to act is now.” “Within the gas industry, problems we’re facing include lack of infrastructure, risk management, no preventive maintenance safety measures in place. There are environmental concerns. We need a proactive approach instead of a reactive approach,” says John Devlin. “There’s an older, aging workforce that’s looking to retire. They’re not leaving yet, but if they don’t leave their expertise and knowledge behind with the [new workforce], we’ll run into problems.”
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