A contractor for Phillips Petroleum Co. who was burned in the March 27 explosion at the Pasadena, Texas, K-Resin plant, has filed a lawsuit against the company, claiming it knowingly risks the safety of its employees to maximize production. The lawsuit was filed March 31 in the U.S. District Court in Houston by Luis Rangel, 40, a foreman for H.B. Zachry Co., a San Antonio-based firm contracted to supply industrial maintenance services to Phillips.
Phillips officials declined to comment on the allegations because of the pending litigation.
Rangel was one of 74 who sustained various injuries in the blast. One man was killed in the explosion.
In his lawsuit, Rangel alleges "the health and safety of [Phillips] workers are sacrificed in the name of corporate profits and an increasing net worth."
Though Phillips has a Central Safety Committee, Rangel claimed complaints and grievances relating to safety concerns often are ignored or "swept under the rug."
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration could not confirm claims in the lawsuit that Phillips had 36 flash fires at the Pasadena site between 1996 and 1998.
John Miles, OSHA's region 6 director, said the agency has inspected the chemical complex 30 times since 1971, including regularly scheduled inspections, complaints or accidents.
OSHA tends to focus its surprise inspections on companies with high illness and injury rates, which are infrequent in the chemical industry, he said.
"This last year they've had a lot of accidents and we're concerned about them," Miles said.
Three additional accidents have occurred at the Phillips complex in the past 12 months. Last summer's deadly explosion at the K-Resin plant was by far the worst in the past year. Excessive pressure caused a reactor to blow up, killing two men, both of whom were related to Luis Rangel. Phillips was fined $204,000 for violations relating to that blast.
Improved safety measures were taken following the 1989 explosion that destroyed Phillips' HDPE plant. In that blast, 23 were killed and 314 were injured. The plant eventually was rebuilt.
The Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers International Union, which represents hourly workers, was satisfied with the improvements for a while, said Thomas Gentry, the president of Local 4227.
He said Phillips agreed to document the safety precautions that had been taken to prevent future explosions and allow all employees to view the materials at their own leisure.
However, "the paper trail was not very well kept," he said. "You had to kind of jump through a few hoops," to get to the analysis.
Gentry claimed the paperwork was kept in the main office building and employees were given a hard time if they wanted to look at it.
"Employees simply didn't take the steps necessary. Most of them would not go to the trouble," he added.
After the 1989 blast, Phillips and the union agreed to meet quarterly to discuss progress but the meetings dwindled after time and eventually stopped, he said.
"Company officials continue to be largely cooperative. They say the right things, they just don't always do the right things," Gentry said.
Two hourly employees now sit on Phillips' Central Safety Committee but Gentry does not believe that's enough to make a difference.
"It's not what I call legitimate employee involvement. They're almost there just to say they're there," he said.
Phillips' PP and PE plants were back in production April 4 but the K-Resin plant could be down for some time, company spokesman Jere Smith said.
K-Resin is the trade name for Phillips' styrene butadiene copolymer.