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UFCW/ICWUC president to Senate committee: “Workers and labor representatives need to be involved in protecting our chemical infrastructure”

June 7, 2019 Updated: September 8, 2020

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John Morawetz, president of the International Chemical Workers Union Council (ICWUC), one of the councils within the UFCW, testified before the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on June 4th to advocate on behalf of the safety of both everyday Americans and those who work in the chemical industry.

Morawetz has three decades of experience investigating occupational health hazards and currently serves as the director of the nationally-recognized ICWUC Training Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. His expertise in both safety and worker issues allowed him to present a unique perspective to the committee, which had gathered to discuss the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) program. Managed by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and established in 2007, CFATS is the country’s first regulatory program focused specifically on security at high-risk chemical facilities.

“Unions have made sure their members are educated and trained on the safety and health hazards they face on the job,” said Morawetz in his written testimony. “Union negotiators bargain over health and safety contract language, actively participate in the investigation and identification of health and safety hazards and testify in support of legislation which strengthens workplace security.  Unions are actively involved in making our workplaces safer.”

Morawetz had four recommendations to the committee to ensure safety and security at chemical facilities:

1.) More worker involvement.

Workers have expertise and are ultimately the most familiar with the day to day reality of what’s really happening on the ground, and that knowledge and expertise shouldn’t go to waste.

“Chemical workers have direct, current knowledge and experience of plant operations that is invaluable in solving site specific problems.  Chemical workers know first-hand how a plant works, what chemicals are used, how those chemicals react to one another, their facilities’ weaknesses and the most recent operational changes.  We also know if backup systems will work when the power goes out.  We know the exact location of the CFATS hazardous materials and we know if training is effective.  All these responsibilities make chemical workers the first and best line of defense.”

That includes more union involvement with CFATS inspections

Though federal agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), NIOSH, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) all have procedures to work with both management and labor during their inspections, the same cannot be said for CFATS.

“I’d love to tell you about what takes place during a CFATS inspection, but we don’t know since we are not informed of these visits.  Right now, the law allows discretion on the part of inspectors as to whether workers and the union are advised of an inspection. We know of very few locals or members that have been involved in inspections, and this means an important stakeholder and their valuable information may be excluded from the process.”

2.) Better training.

Everyone, including inspectors, should receive relevant and regular training. Of chemical workers surveyed in union-led safety classes at the Center for Workers’ Health and Safety Education, more than eighty percent had no employer training in the last year in 9 out of 10 key worker safety areas.

Implementing good training is not easy.  One facility that I reviewed was trying to implement the right procedures but after careful review, I realized that all the drills were taking place on the first shift because that is when the salaried employees worked.  The facility has three shifts and operates continuously, so only a fraction of the workers were being drilled for these types of events.

For over 30 years my union has run training programs and collected data on how much training our members received. OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard is the primary OSHA standard requiring training on hazardous chemicals, and the requirement is minimal.  Workers are trained when they initially assigned to a job, and then again if new chemicals are introduced.  Other than this initial training, workers often do not receive further training on hazardous chemicals.  According to data collected by our union, we found that from 2017 to 2018 over 80% of workers who attended ICWUC training had no training in the last year in nine of the ten key worker safety areas. The nine areas not trained on were: Engineering Controls, Air Monitoring, Decontamination, Toxic Effects, Emergency Response Procedures, OSHA Regulations, Plugging and Patching, Selection of Protective Clothing or Respirators.  The government and companies must increase the amount and type of training for all workers inside of CFATS covered plants.

3.) Strengthened protections for whistleblowers.

Making sure workers who spot problems feel safe enough to speak up and not face retaliation is vital to ensuring problems are dealt with before they cause an incident.

“Whistleblowers who disclose wrongdoing at chemical facilities can save lives and help improve public safety and plant security and should not face retaliation.

Regretfully fear is a fact of life at all too many workplaces and jeopardizing one’s job by blowing the whistle is a risky thing to do.  Workers, who bravely come forward to protect themselves, their co-workers, and communities around the plant, should not fear losing their jobs when they speak out.  Whistleblower protection is vital in assuring the free exchange of ideas, improving security and ensuring that effective measures are actually implemented.  Workers must have the ability to come forth and communicate program deficiencies without fear of retribution.

DHS is responsible for managing the CFATS whistleblower process and procedures, but DHS lacks processes and procedures to address whistleblower retaliation reports.”

4.) Regular information exchange

The Department of Homeland Security has information on best practices plants use to reduce their risk and should share that information so other plants can learn from them.

Although reducing potential consequences may not be feasible in all circumstances, because of technological or economic constraints, steps such as substituting safer solvents or formulations for more dangerous ones can be implemented if companies know about it.  The quantities or concentrations can be reduced to below threshold amounts, some substances can be used in a less dangerous form, alternative processes can be used, chemicals can be used “just in time” (without storage), vulnerable sections can be reinforced, inventory control can be improved, bulk storage can be minimized and maintenance schedules can be reviewed regularly.  Many companies have implemented these changes and there is much to be learned from which changes have been the most effective.  This information sharing can be done without identifying individual companies or locations.

About the ICWUC

The ICWUC was originally founded in 1944 and represents approximately 20,000 chemical workers in 32 states. The union merged with the UFCW in 1996, and has operated as a council within the greater UFCW ever since. ICWUC members are full-fledged UFCW members and eligible for UFCW member benefits, including education opportunities and discounts. 

Improving on-the-job safety for members and negotiating strong contracts with good wages, benefits and job protections are priorities for the ICWUC. UFCW members work in many different manufacturing industries including petroleum and coal products, fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, pesticides and other agricultural chemical smelters and refineries, as well as, natural gas distribution, nuclear weapon production and power plants. For their own health, for their coworkers’ health and for their communities’ well-being, UFCW members responsible for working with the extremely hazardous substances involved in these industries have a vested interest in the safe operation of their facilities.

In addition to advocating for better legislation at both the state and national level, the ICWUC operates the nationally recognized Center for Workers’ Health and Safety Education in Cincinnati, Ohio, and where it regularly trains union members to become experts in on-the-job safety.

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