Keeping out of trouble Refinery's safety specialist reflects modern industry's caution

Posted: Sunday, April 16, 2000

People don't know what we do. They ask if I clean teeth or fingernails.

--Tracy Manolakis,

Tesoro industrial hygienist

and safety coordinator


BYLINE2:Peninsula Clarion

"Safety first" has been a workplace slogan for years.

What that really means has changed dramatically over the past generation. Leading that change are people like Tracy Manolakis, the industrial hygienist and safety coordinator at the Tesoro refinery at Nikiski.

"Traditionally, safety people in industry have been viewed as a thorn in people's sides," she said.

That attitude is obsolete. Now safety and environmental concerns are built into industrial planning from the beginning, and the favorable results are transforming the way industries do business, Manolakis said.

"The key thing here is that safety is everyone's responsibility. And to make it work, you need management support."

The people who pull that process together are industrial hygienists, a job so new, few outsiders are familiar with it.

"People don't know what we do," Manolakis said. "They ask if I clean teeth or fingernails."

In harm's way

Instead she monitors workers' exposure to dangerous chemicals, reviews changing government regulations, designs work settings and participates in departmental safety and training meetings. And that is just a sketchy outline.

The mission of industrial hygiene is to recognize, evaluate and control hazards, Manolakis said.

At a refinery like Tesoro's, potential hazards abound.

Outside the window of Manolakis' corner office, a complex of storage and refining structures cover nearly 200 acres overlooking Cook Inlet.

Miles of pipe snake up the sides of giant towers and fold back and forth in a maze of heat exchangers. Around the towers squat fields of cylindrical fuel storage tanks and spherical liquefied natural gas containers. On the periphery huddle corrugated buildings: administration offices, laboratories, machine shops, garages and bunk houses.

The refinery processes crude oil, usually from Cook Inlet. It separates the stew of petroleum chemicals into products using evaporation, condensation and chemical purification. The end products include butane, propane, gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, bunker oil and elemental sulfur.

About 175 Tesoro employees and a changing cast of visiting contractors work on the site, and Manolakis' job is to make sure they are none the worse for the experience.

The top safety priority is to avoid explosion or fire.

"There is a potential for that," she said. "We are dealing with flammable product under pressure."

In December, the refinery got its own $490,000 fire truck, a gleaming behemoth on wheels nicknamed "White Knight." One of Manolakis' tasks is working with staff and the Nikiski Fire Department to train their in-house fire brigade.

But she and her colleagues must be vigilant for less spectacular hazards, as well.

Manolakis methodically tallied the diverse categories:

n Physical hazards such as slips, falling objects and pinching machinery;

n Ergonomic hazards such as repetitive motions and heavy lifting; and

n Chemical hazards such as the petroleum components, laboratory ingredients and sulfurous gases.

Being a safety manager in the year 2000 means far more than passing out tip sheets and plastic goggles, she stressed.

Manolakis studies evolving technology and regulations. One of her most time-consuming tasks is analyzing state and federal safety rules to be sure Tesoro is compliant and to determine how they apply to specific refinery functions.

Part of the time she walks the grounds, monitoring badges that measure exposure levels and testing air samples.

She uses concepts from medicine, chemistry and even engineering, which she uses to design appropriate work places.

The biggest change she has seen during the five years she has worked at Tesoro is a growing emphasis on the psychology of human behavior.

"This was a new concept in safety -- safety by behavior," she said. "It had never been tried before."

Key to the concept is involving rank and file in safety decisions at all levels, she said. Workers volunteer for a safety steering committee. They all get to comment on how equipment and procedures really work out for them.

"We get their feedback. There is more two-way communication," Manolakis said.

"We are a team here. It is not management vs. the front-line workers."

A job for those

who love challenge

Manolakis loves her work because it is diverse, challenging and, most of all, it gets results, she said.

She discovered industrial hygiene and safety while a student at Colorado State University taking classes in pursuit of animal medicine. Courses in environmental health and safety distracted her from her original goal.

"It was so interesting to me, I decided to stay in that instead of veterinary medicine," she said.

While her college friends struggled to find work after graduation, she lined up a prime job before she even finished classes.

Manolakis first worked as an environmental specialist for the Summit County Health Department in Colorado 11 years ago.

Peoples' health and environmental health -- they overlap a lot," she said.

She inspected restaurants, designed septic systems and studied disease patterns.

Subsequently, she worked for a consulting firm on contract jobs. The most memorable was a stint at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Superfund site, scoping out abandoned buildings before cleanup crews could enter.

"Boy, that place is a story in itself," she said.

The facility had produced nerve gas, napalm and white phosphorous during the Vietnam War. Subsequently, a private firm used it to manufacture pesticides.

Manolakis described enormous rusted ovens that reminded her of the Holocaust and dilapidated sheds littered with dead pigeons.

"We had to wear our (protective) suits," she recalled. "We were half scared going in those buildings."

But the consultant's life of erratic travel wore her down, and she began looking for a more settled job.

When she heard about the job at Tesoro, her interest was piqued.

Manolakis, although raised in Colorado, actually was born in Alaska while her father was stationed at Elmendorf Air Force Base. An uncle had worked for Marathon Oil Co. in Kenai and recommended the area.

"I remember being so excited I could bust," she said.

When she came north, her boyfriend and colleague, Dan Buecker, quit his job and followed her. Two years ago they married, and he now works at Tesoro, too, as an environmental technician.

Manolakis had high praise for their employer.

"It was probably the best move I ever made, career-wise," she said.

The company encourages employee advancement, continuous improvement and the safety mind-set, she said.

"That is why I like it here. They make it easy to be a safety person because they are so supportive."

Perhaps the best sign that Manolakis remains jazzed about her career came from within her family.

Her sister became an industrial hygienist, too, and now works in an aluminum smelting plant in Seattle.

"She graduated with the same degree I have," Manolakis said. "She saw how much fun I was having."

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