17 The ‘milking’ of oil workers

This article was published on my blog, May 2013[1]

If you have ever passed by the entrance gates to any of the oil companies, you must have seen a warning sign that says that you would not be allowed to drive into the premises without using your seat belt. The intent of those signs is to indicate to you that the companies follow strict safety rules. Some years back, I was in a training meeting of directors of the Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC). The major focus was on how to handle rampant pipeline problems. At that meeting, it was revealed that in trying to clamp ruptured or damaged pipes conveying refined petroleum products, some workers had to stand in pools of petrol or diesel to carry out their assignments, obviously without adequate protection.

Generally, oil field workers are as exposed as communities are to the dangerous pollutants of the industry. At that meeting, I had an opportunity to propose the thesis that ‘sabotage’ must be seen in some contexts as a legitimate political weapon. Legitimate? While remaining a proponent of non-violent resistance, it must be recognised that unless sabotage is seen as a possible weapon for the expression of dissent, then the right solution to the problems may never be found. The thesis was roundly rejected. But eventually, when the sparks started to fly in the oil fields and in the surrounding communities, it began to sink in that the ultimate solution to address the explosive dissent in the Niger Delta must be found in tackling the root causes of the dissent.

A couple of weeks ago, I was opportune to participate in health and safety workshops for oil sector workers, organised by the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, also known as the Solidarity Center. There were four workshops in all, but I was only able to attend the ones in Warri and Lagos. While one cannot compare working in the oil fields to working in violent conflict zones, or at a nuclear power plant, it is quite true that workers in the oil and gas sector need to be pretty much concerned about health and safety issues. Some of the workers who perform sedentary duties in offices complained that the constant focus on computer screens poses serious health issues to them.

Others said that they were required to ensure they grab staircase handrails while climbing or descending the stairs to avoid falls. That must be why we have those banisters and balustrades, surely? A machine operator complained that he has hearing problems due to exposure to extreme noise at his workplace. Some of the field workers said that sometimes they have to climb dangerous heights while performing their duties on the rigs and other locations. Even though they wear safety belts, the dangers are always there.

Management versus workers

There were healthy debates over the question of who was to be blamed for most workplace accidents in this sector— management or workers? It was striking to see oil-worker unionists speaking almost like their managers. Some informed the workshops that they did not have safety issues in their companies because management took care of everything. Quite a number of them believed that the management did the utmost in providing safety gears and took other measures that should keep accidents from happening. They maintained that the blame must be placed on the workers since it was likely the accidents took place when workers cut corners or otherwise ignored specified methods and processes.

Those who held that the management were to be blamed for most of the accidents insisted that management cared more about machines than they care about the workers. They held also that accidents do happen even when the procedures set out by management are followed. Another point was that, sometimes, workers are forced by management to take shortcuts in order to meet production targets.

One interesting fact shared at the workshops was the need for unions to carry out workplace mapping of health and accident issues. When such mapping is done over time, a pattern of accident or health issues related to particular workstations or procedures emerge. It was also noted that the shop floor workers could take these steps, even if the unions are not keen on monitoring and mapping.

Milk as antidote

A real surprise that came from these workshops was the revelation that oil companies use milk as an antidote for exposure to heat and hazardous chemicals. We exchanged banter that if cow milk was so efficacious and could cure cancers and other health challenges, then every oil worker should own a milk cow. A participant from one of the top oil transnational corporations said that the company provides tins of milk to workers who man their electricity generators to counter the impact of the heat and chemical exposures. It sounded as a joke initially, but it turned out to be a serious matter. A former union member said that between 1975 and 1978, while working in a gas industry, the workers, who produced acetylene and oxygen in cylinders, were always provided with milk while on duty. Medical experts will have to tell us if milk is the antidote to heat and chemical exposure in the oil and gas sector. Could this be another way by which workers are taken for a ride, exposed to harm, and then given a false sense of well-being through gifts of tins of milk? If this is fraud, the companies who engage in this deception must be brought to book. If it is effective, then get me my cow.


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