The recent guest commentary by the United Steelworkers' Robert LaVenture contained falsehoods and badly distorted the contents and the effect of Senate Bill 54 by Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley. This bill was openly heard in Assembly committees on Aug. 12 and Aug. 21, and a separate bill containing some of the same material was repeatedly heard in committees earlier in the year.
But, more important, the commentary misstates the content and purpose of the bill. It states that the bill "is ostensibly designed to establish a training and certification program for workers that work in high-hazard industrial facilities." No, not "ostensibly." The bill is designed for precisely that purpose. It, in fact, ensures that workers at dangerous refineries are trained to have the skills to be safe and efficient.
The Assembly Committee on Labor and Employment's analysis of the bill states that the author introduced the bill because, "Under existing law there are no requirements that employees of outside contractors working at chemical manufacturing and processing facilities, including refineries, have a minimum level of skills training, including public safety training. This poses a risk to public health and safety as unskilled and untrained workers may be unfamiliar with the construction work associated with such facilities, general facility operations and emergency plans."
The analysis continues to explain that the author believes "ensuring that outside contractors that work at chemical refineries have properly trained workers through approved apprenticeship programs will reduce public health and safety risks."
The commentary's author acknowledges the dangers posed by these facilities and agrees that "several incidents" have occurred at them, and then dismisses them as a threat to anyone's safety.
In fact, those "incidents" are more than a hundred explosions, fires, spills and other catastrophes that did result in many deaths, injuries and threats to communities, which were in fact linked to inadequate public safety training. That is precisely the issue SB 54 addresses, and precisely why this common-sense legislation is absolutely necessary.
To address this serious problem, the bill would require contractors at dangerous facilities such as refineries to employ a "skilled and trained workforce," which is defined as at least 60 percent journeyman-level workers who have graduated from an approved apprenticeship program. Further, it would eliminate the incentive for contractors to use lesser trained, poorly paid workers, often brought here from other states, by requiring that the workers at these dangerous facilities be paid the prevailing wage. This sets a standard to attract the most highly skilled and productive industrial trade workers.
Pretending that worker training is unrelated to refinery safety is both naive and dangerous. As Gov. Jerry Brown's Interagency Working Group on Refinery Safety reported: "Workers involved in maintenance, represented by building and construction trades unions, reported that training of most maintenance workers (nonrefinery employees) is inadequate. They also reported that refineries use mostly contract workers, including out-of-state workers, to conduct maintenance during planned shutdowns of a refinery process (also referred to as turnarounds), and that contract workers have less training and experience and, therefore, are less safe."
That is exactly the problem. The lack of training of these workers at these dangerous facilities are making them less safe, both to the workers themselves and the surrounding communities.
By requiring that contractors that perform work in these volatile industrial facilities have a workforce of at least 60 percent that have graduated from a state-approved construction-trades apprenticeship program, the state of California, because of its oversight and input on these state-approved training programs, can have certainty on the quality of construction and safety during construction.
These are the same California workers who have originally built these refineries and work in the construction industry as a career, building bridges, skyscrapers, and other public works projects to standards that last for a century or more.
The state has a mandate to protect the public and the environment. It also has an interest in ensuring that California residents who often live in the shadow of these refineries have the opportunity to be trained and productive, enabling businesses to be profitable and therefore driving the state's economy.
SB 54 offers the logical solution: making those workers better trained, and in turn, making those facilities more safe, to workers and surrounding communities.
Robbie Hunter is president of the state Building and Construction Trades Council of California.