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A Dow Chemical subsidiary has locked out more than 200 workers at a chemical plant in Deer Park east of Houston after negotiations for a new labor contract broke down, the company and union said Monday.

Dow and United Steelworkers Local 13-1, which represents worker at the plant owned by Dow subsidiary Rohm and Haas Texas, have been in contract talks for the Deer Park site since February 14, according to the company. The employees have worked under a rolling 24-hour extension of the current labor contract as negotiations continued.

Union officials said Dow informed them last week that the company would lock the workers out if they could not reach a deal by 2 p.m. Monday. A company spokeswoman said a contingent workforce, comprised mostly of technical employees trained and qualified to operate the plant, will keep the facility running during the lockout. She added that the union workers would be welcomed back to their jobs once the contract is settled.

We have had open discussions and productive meetings working toward a fair and equitable agreement,” the spokeswoman said in a statement. “Although we have made progress on many elements, we have not on others. We must stay competitive in a very challenging industry around the globe.”

Union officials blasted the lockout, which bars the union members from working at the plant until a new agreement has been reached or the company ends the lockout.

“The company’s decision to lock its doors on these hard-working union members is reckless and irresponsible,” said Ruben Garza, director of the union’s District 13, which includes Texas and three neighboring states, in a statement. “These workers have been bargaining with this company in good faith to reach a fair agreement, and now, through no fault of their own, they find themselves on a picket line.”

Safety concerns

Union officials said they are concerned about worker fatigue and safety as a result of what they say is an understaffing problem that results in too much overtime.

“The United Steelworkers is committed to making sure that we have consistent and safe staffing levels,” Garza said. “These negotiations are about more than just money. We also must consider the safety and well-being of the workers and the entire community.”

Concerns about workplace safety and fatigue don’t appear to be new. After a period of what was described as understaffing during Hurricane Harvey, United Steelworkers officials asked the company for more information about its overtime and fatigue policies, according to National Labor Relations Board documents.

The union later filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing the company of failing to provide the requested information, according to NLRB documents. Under national labor law, a company can’t unduly delay or deny unions information covered by a collective bargaining agreement. An NLRB administrative law judge sided with the union in March, according to NLRB records.

Dow officials said they are working to improve overtime policies.

“Safety is always Dow’s top priority and we are deeply committed to the security and safety of our employees. A key element of our offer to the union during these negotiations has been to redistribute overtime in a more fair and equitable manner to maximize the safety of our operations,” a Dow spokeswoman said over email.

The union’s safety concerns come as the chemical industry in the region experienced two major accidents within matter of weeks. An explosion and fire at the KMCO plant in Crosby killed one person and injured two others earlier this month. A fire at Intercontinental Terminals Co. in mid-March burned for days, spewed thick dark smoke and contributed to partial shutdown of the Houston Ship Channel, although  no injuries were reported.

The Intercontinental Terminals Co, is located about a half mile from the Rohm and Haas Texas Inc. site where workers are locked out.

The Deer Park plant makes specialty chemicals used in paints, detergents, floor care products, adhesives and sealants, automotive coatings, acrylic plastics, personal care products and water purification chemicals, according to the company website.

Dow acquired the Deer Park site when it bought Rohm & Hass in 2009, according to data from the energy research firm Wood Mackenzie. The site mainly produces acrylic based specialty chemicals such as acrylic acid (465,000 ton per year); which is primarily used in paint, coating and adhesives and in  superabsorbent polymers used in diapers or other liquid absorbing applications. The plant also produces about 475,000 ton per year of   methyl methacrylate, which used in polymers with high durability and clarity, such as glass on flat screens televisions, light fixtures and cars.

“The plant will likely continue to operate with non-union laborers (engineers, management, etc) so this should have minimal market impact on the chemicals in the near term. However, longer term, this could have issues on the operations of the plant and associated chemical markets if the company and labor union do not come to a timely agreement to resume normal operations and staffing,” said Steve Zinger, senior vice president of petrochemicals at Wood Mackenzie.

The USW represents 850,000 workers in North America spread across chemicals, rubber, metal, paper, oil refining, service and public sectors.