I was the sole female in my industrial firefighter class for Marathon Petroleum Corporation’s Catlettsburg Refinery. When you’re the only woman, there’s always that extra self-imposed pressure to prove you belong. Imposter syndrome happily rears its head in a male-dominated arena. Luckily, on the fire field there’s no time for self-doubt; there’s only time for action based on ingrained training and preparation. Facing a rapidly spreading fire alongside my team, I gripped the hose, widened my stance, and leaned on my training. “You’ve got to watch each other’s backs. There’s flammable stuff in this refinery. We’re not making Kool-Aid out here.” Sage words from a seasoned industrial firefighter rang in my head as ignited propane screamed at a live-burn training in Texas.
During my interview for the fire and rescue team, another veteran firefighter brusquely asked, “This team is a family. Why should I let you become part of my family?” My response must have been sufficient. I had made the team and was here to obtain my Industrial Firefighter 1 certification. I fervently hoped I wasn’t about to disappoint my new fire family and myself. I muttered a prayer in my SCBA mask that I wouldn’t mess this up. “Please, God, don’t let me be the weakest link.”
I didn’t “fall-out” during that first week of Industrial Fire 1 training at Texas A&M. Maybe all those years running and rock climbing finally paid off, or maybe it’s just harder to overheat in your bunker gear when you’re only five feet four inches tall.
It has been several years since that initial haze of self-doubt was smothered like flammable vapors under firefighting foam. I am an employee of Marathon Petroleum Corporation (MPC). I am a proud union member of USW Local-8-00719 and work as a loader within the blending and shipping department of MPC’s Catlettsburg Refinery in Eastern Kentucky.
At this refinery, I also volunteer on our fire and rescue team and serve as the only woman on the special operations rescue team. Our refinery, nestled near the juncture of three states, is a nexus where river, road and rail meet. With an uncharacteristic look of earnestness, a seasoned worker once described blending and shipping to me as “the heart of the refinery.” That comparison can’t be overstated. We’re the interconnected organ tying together process units of the refinery and our customers. The blending and shipping department is the final step before our multitude of products leave the refinery and depart toward our downstream consumers. Like the roads, rivers and rails that lead to the Catlettsburg Refinery, I have cut my own path to this career and a place in my community. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and now find myself happily enmeshed in the blue-collar world of petroleum product loading.
How does a philosopher turn from Kantian ethics to turning a pipe wrench? At the heart of philosophy is a deep desire for knowledge. The word itself hearkens back to Greek roots meaning “love of wisdom.” I suppose it’s this thirst for learning new things that led me to the oil industry. Not to be limited by a degree in an overly pedantic field, I also studied the sciences. I continued my education and ultimately gained laboratory experience in a microbiology lab as well as field experience with West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection watershed assessment branch. This experience, coupled with undergraduate and graduate level classes, landed me my first temporary assignment at Marathon Petroleum Company’s Refining and Analytical Division in the Environmental department.
It is there that I began my foray into the petrochemical world by obtaining proficiency in various forms of waste-water testing. My laboratory work was dotted with excursions into the seemingly labyrinthian Catlettsburg Refinery for NESHAPS sample collection. Pockets of steam shrouded gargantuan stacks as pipe racks snaked through a minefield of tanks and processing equipment. I was a long way from discussing Heidegger and Plato but felt right at home doing what any philosopher does best: learning and asking LOTS of questions.
When my temporary assignment blossomed into full-time employment in the analytical division’s asphalt certification lab, I was ecstatic. I was soon entrenched in the world of asphalt binder testing and certification, a myriad of tests on which to qualify and gain mastery. From ductility testing to tackling the dynamic shear rheometer, the asphalt lab held a veritable treasure-trove of new things to learn. Eventually an opening occurred in the environmental department where I had gotten my start and I leapt on the opportunity. Now a seasoned laboratory technician, I became familiar with the nuances of volatile organics testing using a GC/mass spec. I was offered the chance to assist our field services team and got a glimpse of different terminals and refineries via stack and VRU testing.
After several years, I took a leap deeper into the refinery where I now deal with the loading and off-loading of propane, butane and other products. I still remember when the Catlettsburg Refinery seemed a confusing pipe-bedecked behemoth to a girl collecting water samples. As I gain proficiency in the different loading jobs, and see more areas with the fire and rescue team, the once vast expanse is slowly becoming familiar.
These days you can locate me tightening a Marshall fitting on top of a railcar or managing propane tank inventory at the truck rack. I enjoy the challenge of meeting daily targets with my family of coworkers while continuing to learn. In the oil industry, I have not only found a career, but I am proud to work for a company willing to invest in further education, a company striving to diversify and welcome women into this workforce. I heartily recommend a career in our industry for any woman with a desire to learn and grow. Here at Catlettsburg, I may sometimes be the only female in the room, but I’m not just the token woman. I’m a member of the blending and shipping team. I’m a part of the fire and rescue family. I’m a self-empowered philosopher with a pipe wrench realizing her goal of lifelong learning.
Sarah Smith is a loader in the blending and shipping/products control department at Marathon Petroleum’s Catlettsburg Refinery. She resides in Genoa, West Virginia, and holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Marshall University (Huntington, WV). She is married to her husband Derek and has two dogs and four horses. Her hobbies include rock climbing and motorcycling. Smith is a proud member of the USW Local-8-00719. She annually attends fire training at Texas A&M in College Station. She is an Industrial Fire Fighter 2, EMT, and Rope Rescue Technician, who volunteers on the Catlettsburg Refinery fire department team. Smith has not only found a satisfying career but is proud to work for a company willing to invest in further education, and one that strives to diversify and welcome women into this workforce.
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