by Caroline Colnbrook
THE GIANT union Unite last Wednesday welcomed the start of talks at the conciliation service Acas in the petrol tanker drivers’ dispute over working conditions and safety.
This follows a week of farce and tragedy in which the Tories made fools of themselves by trying to whip up anti-union sentiments, warning of an impending strike and petrol shortage over Easter when all they had to do to remove the possibility of the strike was to take a serious look at the safety issues involved and get the oil distribution companies around a table with the union to negotiate a code of safety practice in delivering petrol that is in everyone’s interest.
As it was Cabinet Minister Francis Maude instead advised drivers to stock up on petrol supplies in advance of a possible strike and get in a few gerry-cans as well. This prompted panic buying, with petrol stations besieged and running out quickly, causing the exactly the sort of shortages Maude said he wanted to avoid.
The Fire Brigade Union reacted with horror at the prospect of people storing large quantities of petrol in their garages and sheds. And indeed it was not long before one member of the public in North Yorkshire suffered 40 per cent burns as she tried to decant petrol from one container to another in her kitchen while cooking. The woman is still in hospital in a very serious condition.
The FBU called for the Government to make an urgent public safety announcement highlighting the dangers of petrol in the home after this incident.
Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary said: “What this incident shows are the dangers of handling petrol, especially in the home. Petrol is highly flammable, highly explosive, easily ignited and toxic and that message needs to be sent out loud and clear.”
All the more reason why the tanker drivers handling and delivering huge quantities of the stuff everyday should be adequately trained.
But drivers report a serious deterioration in practices since the major oil companies started outsourcing the delivery work to small companies employing poorly trained drivers in order to cut costs.
Writing for leading blog, Left Foot Forward, Tony, a driver with 18 years’ experience, revealed how the downward pressure to cut costs is having a dangerous impact on a strategically vital industry. Tony has changed his name to avoid targeting by bosses.
He tells of:
- Cut-throat operators driving down pay — and cutting corners on training;
- Agency workers being brought in with only two days’ training;
- One contract for a major retailer requiring only one day’s training before a tanker can be taken out on the road;
- Mistakes being made by under-trained drivers resulting in contaminated fuel in forecourts;
- Vehicles repaired so often drivers liken them to “Meccano” sets;
- Unmanned forecourts where drivers are told to unload dangerous fuel alone;
- Drivers being told to risk their own safety by approaching the public if they present a danger to the fuel, with reports of assaults on drivers as a result;
- Greater numbers of low-cost operators entering the market, pushing standards down still further and the industry further towards chaos;
- Drivers on six-month short-term contracts even though the fuel contract may be for three to five years.
Tony writes: “My working day starts at two in the morning. For the next 12 hours, I am in charge of 38,000 litres of fuel.
“I’ve been doing this job for 18 years, and in that time I can only say things have never been worse. Direct employment has ended, and standards have been stretched all the way down the supply chain.
“The market rules.
There are no minimum standards governing what the industry should do. It is ripe for attack by cowboy operators who hire and fire drivers, paying them £8-£9 per hour for a job they know ought to be paid £15 per hour.
“Some colleagues are now on six-month contracts. You try getting a mortgage or a rental agreement on that. It puts terrible strain on family life — you can’t plan anything when you don’t know if you can count on a pay cheque.”
Tony also tells of worrying compromises on training, which could impact on the public: “A good contractor will provide 10-12 days training each year. But industry fragmentation has pushed this down and down. Now we’ve got guys loading trucks not knowing what product is what. ‘Which one is unleaded?’ I’ve been asked by someone about to take £50,000 worth of flammable liquid onto a public highway.
“One low-cost driver had only just been trained the day before. Another company brought in agency staff, with only two days training. Two loads were contaminated, one on a supermarket forecourt. The retailer was not happy — and neither were customers who were putting the wrong fuel in their tanks.”