Call for rethink after 15 Petrobras workers killed in three incidents

23 08 2011

After the deaths of 15 Petrobras workers in three separate incidents in the last two weeks, the safety record of the company must be rewritten and those claiming this is a model company need to reconsider their position.

On Saturday a Petrobras minibus crashed in Parana state killing ten workers and hospitalising 11 more. A day earlier a Petrobras helicopter carrying workers from the P-65 oil rig crashed in the Atlantic 100km offshore and killed the four people on board.

Petrobras platforms were shutdown in January and February by government labour inspectors following a fire on one rig and concerns over safety measures on another. Union leaders said in a statement that the unit closed in February lacked emergency lighting and sufficient fire control systems. Last year the P-33 platform was shutdown by officials following a massive gas leak and the P-35 platform closed down after a fire on board.

The idea that Petrobras has had a clean safety record for ten years is a complete myth. Unions in Brazil have continually complained about unsafe working conditions and a lethal explosion at a Petrobras refinery two weeks ago is just one more black mark against the company this year.

Government officials in Argentina ordered Petrobras to close down an oil refinery after an explosion at the plant killed a 44 year old worker and left another 47 year old in hospital with severe burns to 15% of his body.

The refinery, located in the southern port city of Bahía Blanca, has a capacity of 31,000 barrels per day. The blast happened in a resting area when workers turned on the lights after finishing their shift.

The death of the Petrobras refinery employee and disfigurement of his colleague two weeks ago follow a similar explosion at another Petrobras refinery in Argentina three years ago, a major incident in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year as the company prepared to start the first new extraction since the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the assassination two years ago of a fisherman and ongoing intimidation of his colleagues who have been protesting against a Petrobras pipeline in Guanabara Bay, Brazil.

The statement issued by Petrobras assuring investors that refining operations had not been affected by the explosion was another example of how little regard the company has for people over profit. Petrobras’ own Chief Financial Officer admitted this week that oil platform shutdowns were up this year, which suggests there are more than those that make the news, but as expected he didn’t offer details.

This company is not a model corporate citizen and the Minister of Energy and Resources should not be allowing Petrobras to operate in New Zealand waters.

Petrobras supporters here will probably claim such incidents are less likely in New Zealand, that it is a huge multinational corporation with thousands of staff and contractors or perhaps “occupational hazards” are impossible to prevent entirely. These positions miss the point. Worker deaths are not some kind of collateral damage,  unavoidable costs of economic development in the increasingly risky search for fossil fuels. Workers are members of families and communities, who should be able to work in environments that are safe. And this issue is not about regulations, it is about a whole corporate culture beyond the PR spin in an industry continually pushing the limits of technology and human labour in the pursuit of a fatter bottom line and increased returns for shareholders.

If those who welcome Petrobras with open arms were not so bedazzled by promises of financial windfalls from deep sea fossil fuel extraction, they might look beyond the information the industry provides for evidence of the dismal safety and environmental record of this company.

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