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Kevin Cullen

Cutting corners at National Grid

Everybody went a little nuts a couple of weeks ago when the lights went out in the Back Bay.

Good thing the problem was the electricity, not the gas.

Continue reading below

“Gas is a whole different thing,’’ says Joe Kirylo, and he should know because for 32 years his job has been to make sure gas is more a utility than a liability.

He says that’s getting harder to do as National Grid guts the union whose workers inspect and maintain the gas lines, replacing them with lower-paid workers with less training and experience.

Kirylo is vice president of Local 12003 of the United Steelworkers, which represents 750 gas workers in Massachusetts. In 2009, the local made concessions that went down to the bone, but now the two sides are back at the negotiating table and Kirylo says the company wants the bone.

“Look,’’ he said, “I’m not talking about a contract right now. I’m talking about safety. No matter how the contract turns out, I’ll still be talking about this. The company wants to outsource 70 percent of the work and give it to people who make $12 an hour. But people need to be trained.’’

Danny O’Connell makes $36 an hour as a gas fitter and up until 2009, you had to do three years of on-the-job apprenticeship before you could do gas line work on your own. Now you don’t have to be a fitter to do the work. And the training?

“The training is eight hours. One day in a classroom,’’ O’Connell said. “That can’t match three years in the field.’’

Inadequate training, Kirylo says, is “a recipe for disaster.’’

Inadequate staff is another matter. Consider what happened to a business block in Brighton last month. The four-alarm fire that caused $4 million in damage burned for seven hours, in large part because the flames were fed by a gas line that couldn’t be quickly turned off. First, they had to dig up the ground to get at the gate box to turn off the gas, and when they did, the gate box was full of rocks and debris.

Last September, Kirylo wrote a letter to a National Grid senior vice president that, viewed from the ruins in Brighton, looks pretty prophetic.

“What the public does not realize,’’ Kirylo wrote, “is that the Company’s ability to shut off the gas when it must do so to reduce the chance of ignition of explosion is impeded by the hundreds of thousands of gate boxes located within National Grid’s territory that are inaccessible because they have been, or are being, paved over. And, even when the gate boxes are visible, they are too often inoperable, either because they are misaligned or because they are filled with debris.’’

Kirylo says job cuts and reassignments have left National Grid less able to inspect, access, and repair gate boxes.

Reuters says National Grid cut 7 percent of its US workforce while its profits rose 25 percent. But National Grid rejects any suggestion it is reducing safety to raise profits.

“The safety of the public, our customers, and our employees is National Grid’s top priority and that governs how we do business every day,’’ said National Grid spokesman David Graves. “We value our gas employees and the expertise and dedication they bring to their jobs and are hopeful for agreement on a new contract. In the meantime, we are fully prepared to maintain continued safe, reliable gas service to our customers during these negotiations.’’

Health and safety are at the heart of this dispute. But so, too, are the health and safety of the sort of middle-class jobs that Joe Kirylo and Danny O’Connell raised families with. Replacing them with people making 12 bucks an hour is great for National Grid stockholders.

But what about the rest of us?

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.
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