Memories of my Father - George Willard Gibson, 11/18/1918 - 9/3/2012

Entry 6: Occupational Safety

My dad worked in an oil refinery. Someday, I am going to write down all the various ways you can injure, maim, or kill yourself working in a refinery. It's a lengthy list. Growing up, I don't think it ever occurred to me that my dad could get killed or seriously injured at work. When he walked out the door, no matter what shift or time of day he was leaving, I was certain he would return in 8 hours, take off his boots and work gloves and hard hat, kiss my mom, and everything would be normal. A couple of times there were fires at the refinery and when they occurred, every employee got called out to help fight the fire and that was something that made Mom visibly upset.

But it never really soaked in to me that bad things could happen.

In 1978, I spent my summer working in the refinery with my dad. It was actually kind of cool to drive to work with him on my first day. After all, he was the cat unit supervisor at that point and had a reserved parking spot next to the entry shack so that was sweet. As I was getting out of the car, he reached over and grabbed my arm. Dad wasn't big on heart-to-heart talks. If he stopped me to listen to something important, I knew it was really important.

"Listen," he said, "some of these guys pushing the maintenance gangs might ask you to do something you don't think is safe."

I assumed he was going to tell me that no matter how smart I was, these experienced hands at the refinery knew better what needed to be done and that I should just listen to them and follow orders. Dad surprised me.

"If that happens," he told me, "say no. I'd rather have you fired than dead."

Dead? This was a summer job. I had visions of mowing lawns next to oil tanks or cleaning tables in the lunch room. Dead? My dad wasn't the type of guy who was prone to hyperbole. This seemed a bit out of character. But I dutifully nodded and told him I'd be cautious. I think in the back of my mind, the workplace, even this one, wasn't really something I thought of as dangerous. I should have known better, of course. I'd just finished two semesters of organic chemistry. I understood the nature of hydrocarbon byproducts pretty well. So my dad's possible alarm shouldn't have come as a surprise.

If his concern didn't have my full attention, there was a moment shortly after that which probably did. Those of us on the summer work gang were gathered in the lunch room where we got an orientation from the refinery's safety inspector, an expatriate Brit named Robert Chope. Mr. Chope began his orientation lecture with the following sentence:

"You're working in a fucking time bomb!"

I replayed my conversation with Dad. Okay, I told myself, if they ask me to do something too crazy, I'll just say no.

I said 'no' for the first time less than four hours later, that same day. I was assigned to a rigger and our first task was to pull an old, rusting tank out of a salvage yard, take it back to the refinery, and remove all the fittings from it. The welders cut off assorted pipes and flanges and then I was instructed to take a power grinder, crawl into this six-foot diameter rusting steel tube, and grind out the openings that had been cut. I informed the rigger that I was not going to do this without proper ear and eye protection. I was called a pussy, cussed out thoroughly, and advised that I was wasting his and the refinery's precious time. I was also advised that I could easily be replaced and that it was just too much trouble to head over to the supply room for ear plugs and goggles.

I said no.

For the record, I got my ear plugs and goggles and I did crawl into that vessel and do the job. At the end of the day, I was unsure whether to bring it up on the ride home. After all, the danger had not been mortal. I wasn't facing likely death when I demanded we do things my way. So I wasn't quite sure this was the type of situation Dad meant when he told me I should just say no. We got into the car and Dad started the engine. As he was backing out of his assigned parking space, he casually commented, "I heard you said no."

"Yep."

He nodded and said, "Good."

Over the course of the summer, I said 'no' several times. I also found myself doing a number of things I probably should have said 'no' to but for whatever reason, felt I had to go ahead and do. By the end of the summer, I knew the refinery was a dangerous place to work. My dad lived to be 93 years of age. He retired from the refinery a healthy man after over thirty years of working there. He still had full use of his limbs, as functional a set of eyes and ears as he'd had when he first went to work, and he did not come down with any strange or destructive disease processes as a result of his time there. I know enough to know he was mighty fortunate.

That place was f-ing dangerous!

This here, my friends, is a F-ing time bomb!

Click the photo to see my discussion of the 10 interesting ways a person can get themselves seriously injured or killed working in an oil refinery for the summer!