In April 2008, as part of a Solidarity Center project, a group of trainers from the United Steelworkers union (USW) traveled to Nigeria to conduct a week of occupational health and safety workshops for oil workers.
||USW trainer Kim Nibarger reviews an accident reporting plan with oil workers in Warri, Nigeria.
Trainers were Kim Nibarger, Duronda Pope, and Melinda Newhouse. Between them, Nibarger and Pope have more than 40 years of experience in the health and safety field. Both led similar trainings for oil and gas workers in Algeria. Newhouse, from the USW’s Strategic Campaigns Department, joined the training team to link the objectives of health and safety awareness to organizing and change in the workplace.
Participating were 40 members of the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers and the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria. Starting with a broad overview of common health and safety issues, Nibarger and Pope helped workers narrow the discussion to their own health and safety experiences, using such techniques as hazard mapping exercises and mock health and safety surveys. Participants proved adept at developing effective hazard control strategies that could be linked to labor-management relations and collective bargaining.
Nigerian and U.S. oil unions share a tradition of active trade unionism. In a country where oil revenues account for 80 percent of the economy, Nigerian oil worker unions play a strong and vital institutional and political role. Likewise the USW, with more than 30,000 members in the oil industry, brings a strong history of organizing in the oil sector.
Nibarger began by engaging a group of fellow oil workers in a lively debate over responsibility for workplace accidents. One set of participants squarely blamed employees. “If you see it, you own it,” an oil worker from Warri loudly proclaimed. Another group argued that while their companies claim to want to reduce accidents, there’s not enough inspection and too much liability is being pushed onto workers.
Throughout the spirited back-and-forth, Nibarger tried to focus the workers on his theme: correcting hazards. “We need that employee responsibility,” he told them. “That’s good. But that’s only part of the process. If you recognize and identify a hazard, then you need to find a solution. It takes more time and more energy to identify hazards and change a process in the short term, but in the long term, you’re going to save more time, more money, and more lives.”
Before long, the heat had died down, and participants were sharing real-life examples of hazard control in their workplaces—successes such as a repaired walkway, failures such as employers’ cost cutting on ergonomic and safety equipment, and barriers to change such as standard procedures that encourage negligent behavior. Many workers said they feared losing their jobs if they raised these issues with the boss.
The discussions not only underscored the volatility and danger of work in the oil industry, but also highlighted the connection between Nigerian and U.S. oil workers. Though they work thousands of miles apart, both are employed by many of the same multinational companies with the same business practices, and both have similar experiences confronting workplace hazards.
By the middle of the week, the debate had subsided altogether. Under Pope’s guidance, the group offered ideas for change: “One, we have to continue dialogue on safety. Two, we need regular training. Three, we need to begin a discussion with managers about the proper use of technology.”
Newhouse facilitated a series of activities and discussions on strategic campaigns, generating debate over each union’s strengths and weaknesses and how to link the objectives of health and safety awareness to organizing and workplace change. “We are always looking at ways to engage our members at our workplace to promote solidarity,” she said, “so management sees that it’s not just the usual union suspects, but there are more people who care about health and safety, and they come to the table and listen to what you have to say.” By the end of the week, the conversation had moved into how Nigerian oil unions can use their bargaining strength to improve union-community relations.
The program was a learning experience for workers on both sides of the ocean and built the groundwork for future action. “The companies believe that they do all the right things,” said a Nigerian worker at the end of the week. “They will tell you that they are working toward ‘target zero’ in health and safety … and the rest depends on you. But from this experience, I think I’ve learned a lot of things. We have to work as a union to be part of the process. And we need the right tools and training to do our jobs.”