Worker death at Valero Refinery in Norco highlights ongoing problems

An important story that slipped through the cracks over the Mardi Gras holiday: A contract worker at Valero’s St. Charles Refinery in Norco died Sunday after an accident involving hydrogen sulfide exposure. According to news reports, two contract workers were evacuating  a construction project after noticing the chemical odor during shutdown. Both became unconscious and one fell from a ladder, possibly resulting in his death.

Louisiana State Police confirmed the monitors on both workers showed readings of hydrogen sulfide exposure, according to news report. But a refinery spokesperson claimed the accident didn’t pose a risk for offsite impact. Hydrogen sulfide is an irritant and can cause breathing issues in low concentrations. High concentrations can cause convulsions, unconsciousness, coma and death.

From the Bloomberg article:

The cause of the fatality, reported to state police at 6 p.m. local time, is being investigated. It isn’t known whether the fatality was from exposure to gas or from the trauma of the fall …

It’s the second death at a Louisiana refinery in the past six months, the other happening at Chalmette Refining in October. Both incidents involved contract workers, underscoring a trend at many refineries to cut workforces and outsource tasks to contracting companies.

As LABB stated in the recent Common Ground II report:

Lean management … includes an attempt to save money by laying off full-time workers – often well trained, long-time union members – and replacing them with contract labor. Fewer workers mean there is less time for maintenance.

A lean staff is particularly disastrous during startup and shutdown of a unit. According to workers, starting up a unit is the most dangerous time in a facility. The accident reports support this claim. More than 195 accidents (7 percent of the total) involved the startup or shutdown of refinery units.

It’s important to note that, from our analysis of Valero Refinery in Common Ground II, the facility had 41 accidents releasing a total of 25,000 pounds of hydrogen sulfide from 2005-2009.

We’re still waiting on the results of a full investigation and autopsy report, and we’re communicating with State Police to get those reports once completed.

Written by LABB’s media coordinator Benjamin Leger and research associate Molly Szymanski.

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