Public Lab Research note

What do Workers Experience? Reflections from a coffee-talk with a lifelong employee of the petrochemical industry.

by awoolverton1 | July 26, 2022 19:28 26 Jul 19:28 | #34803 | #34803

The science on the petrochemical industry is clear. It pollutes the air with carcinogens like benzene and ethylene oxide, it contaminates the soil and water, and its detrimental to human health. In South Louisiana's 80-mile petrochemical corridor, also known as "Cancer Alley," residents living among 150 facilities face far higher-than-average cancer rates. These facilites also contribute to leaked methane and other greenhouse gasses emissions that drive climate change.

Yet, industry brings jobs. The Louisiana Chemical Association touts a time when the industry's employment peaked at over 34,000 employees. Formosa Group, a Taiwanese-based plastics facility awaiting permits for a 12-plant complex in St. James Parish, promises 1,200 permanent jobs and another 8,000 temporary jobs during construction.

But jobs don't always equal livelihoods, and employment doesn't always indicate prosperity. That's why the Public Lab Game-Over-Formosa Team sat down with a lifelong employee of the petrochemical industry to learn more about the day-to-day experiences of the industrial workers.

Mr. "Andrew" (who asked to remain anonymous) told us of his decades working in the region. He's employed by a trucking company which is contracted out by several different plants in the area, including Shell Oil.

Mr. Andrew described to us in vivid detail a particular incident in 2001, that exposed him and his coworkers to a slew of dangerous chemicals. "The chemicals inundated my system," he recalls, "the eyes, the nose, and the mouth." Inefficiencies at the plant prevented them from reaching the safety shower for an hour and a half, in clear violation of worker-safety laws, he says.

In the two decades since the incident, Mr. Andrew filed a lawsuit, and received legal retribution. And, his story has been promulgated as a warning by local activist groups. Nothing that severe that ever happened again, he says.

Nonetheless, he and other workers experience toxic exposures on a regular basis. Just last year, he told us, the substances that was transporting around a plant gave him "headaches and stuff. That stuff was so strong you had to cut off your air condition."

"I started getting headaches and stomach aches, when I would pass by the fertilizer plant" he continued. "But when I worked there regularly, (the symptoms) stopped, because my body got used to it."

We asked Mr. Andrew how his friends and neighbors perceive the environmental health consequences of heavy industry. He says that people in his community are getting sick, and when they do, pregnant women are losing their babies. "That's just a known fact. I don't know their names, but I talked to their husbands and boyfriends. (They tell me about) miscarriages and all that."

And recently, he says, folks have begun to link the onslaught of adverse health impacts to the slew of refineries and petrochemical facilities in their backyards. "They didn't used to know it was the chemical plant," he said, "But it's obvious, now. Everybody knows."

Yet, Mr. Andrew's family, friends, and coworkers seldom file complaints with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality or the EPA, if ever. "That's because nobody has the knowledge of how to do it," he says.

This comment, and other conversations with locals, inspired the publication of an Incident Reporting Guide, authored by members of this team, with the help of advocacy groups EarthJustice and RISE St. James.

At Public Lab, we learned a lot from our conversation with Mr. Andrew. We gained insight into the real health incidents of an industry that does not always - or often - have the best interest of its employees at heart. We learned about community perceptions of the industry, as well as levels of local knowledge regarding how to report incidents.

If community-science is to inform advocacy, it must also be informed by the real experiences of community members themselves. The Game-Over-Formosa team encourages other Public Lab teams to listen and learn by setting up conversations with distinct members of the communities they work in.


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