​​Union sounds ominous safety warning at Newfoundland’s only oil refinery

The Come by Chance refinery in Newfoundland and Labrador. Image: NARL

The union representing the employees of North Atlantic Refining Limited (NARL) says that the owners and the provincial government are ignoring safety concerns at Newfoundland’s Come by Chance oil refinery.

The union compared the situation to the troubling conditions that led to the 1998 explosion that killed two workers and seriously injured a third at the refinery.

"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 union said it has been raising safety concerns at the aging refinery for nearly two years and tensions have escalated since NARL announced the layoff of 128 employees at the end of last year.

Subsequent events — including a Reuters report that NARL was selling the 115,000-bbl/d refinery — haven’t helped the situation.

According to the union, an agreement that grants refinery workers the right to be involved in planning process changes, training and other safety-related issues isn’t being followed.

The union has filed a grievance over a recent decision by NARL management to suspend three veteran operators at the refinery after they refused to sign a safe-work permit that would have authorized activity they believed could be hazardous.

The union is also fighting a grievance that challenges NARL’s treatment of Perry Feltham, USW Local 9316 vice president and chair of the union's health and safety committee at the refinery.

Due to a workplace injury last year, Feltham was assigned to perform work that accommodated his injury but, in July, the company sent him home, citing a lack of work.

NARL also changed Feltham’s employment status to inactive and barred him from the property.

Nolan said that an inquiry into the 1998 tragedy revealed a "dysfunctional and confrontational" labour-management relationship at the refinery and added that a similar divide exists today.

"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.

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