explosion gas oshaFive gas rig workers are presumed dead after an explosion  gas rig in Quinton, OK.  The names of the employees are Matt Smith of McAlester, Parker Waldridge of Crescent and Roger Cunningham from Seminole — and two from neighboring states, Josh Ray of Fort Worth, Texas; and Cody Risk of Wellington, Colorado. For much of the day, emergency officials were unable to get near the rig because the fire was still burning.

The new well is owned by Red Mountain Operating and was being drilled by Patterson-UTI Energy, a large oil and gas drilling company, an OSHA “frequent flyer.” Three of the five dead workers were employees of Patterson-UTI. One Pennsylvania reporter noted in 2012 that “the Occupational Health and Safety Administration knows Patterson well.  It has fined the drilling company more than $900,000 over the last decade for repeated safety violations.”

A few examples:

  • In August 2017 Adolfo Garza of Raymondville died after an incident at an oil field rig in Rankin,  TX.
  • In 2013 an Patterson oil rig worker crushed and killed by blowout preventer in Barnhart, TX.
  • In April 2012, Patterson employee Brandon Pennywell, age 24,  of Harrisburg, was killed instantly when the pipe slipped, crushing him between it and a large beam. The day before  a Patterson rig worker in Gonzales, Texas, fell 50 feet to his death. The company was fined $22,000 for the Texas fatality
  • Another Patterson worker was killed Jan. 27, 2012 in Keene, N.C., when a boiler exploded on the oil rig he was working on.
  • At least three Patterson employees were killed in 2011, including a Pennsylvania worker who was struck on the head by a pipe in Shunk, PA (a $7,000 citation); another was struck by rigging equipment in Carrizo Springs, Texas, and one who was killed in July 2011 while hoisting equipment on a rig in Carlsbad, N.M.
  • Patterson-UTI Drilling Co. LLC was cited by OSHA in 2011 and fined $53,900 for one repeat and two serious safety violations following the death of a worker at the company’s site near Cotulla, Texas, after an employee setting up a rig was struck and killed by a section of the track for the drive system on the drilling derrick. The repeat violation was for failing to guard open-sided floors to prevent employees from falling.
  • Patterson was fined $72,600 for four serious and two repeat safety violations after an inspection at the company’s Aunt Bee Well No. 15, Rig No. 80 work site in Odessa as part of its Oil and Gas Regional Emphasis Program. Inspectors found that employees were exposed to various hazards while drilling for oil without the required safeguards. Proposed penalties total $72,600.
  • A Patterson-UTI Drilling worker was making a drill-stem connection May 5, 2010 in Reagan County when he was struck on the head by the pipe after it was lifted up from a hole.  OSHA cited Patterson-UTI for not using a safety line with the pipe, and also for not keeping fire extinguishers where they should be.
  • OSHA also cited Patterson in 2007  penalties totaling $47,600 for allegedly failing to protect employees from hazardous working conditions. One of those violations resulted in the 2011 repeat violation mentioned above. That citation included one serious, two repeat and one other-than-serious violation following an investigation that began February 7 at the company’s Cheyenne worksite.

In a wide ranging series of articles in 2014, Houston Chronicle reporter Lise Olsen discussed Patterson’s workplace safety problems. In response, Patterson told the Chronicle that “The safety of our employees and others is our highest priority,”  and that “significant investment we have made in upgrading safety practices and training, and creating a culture in which safety is paramount, is showing positive results. Our tracking data shows that our efforts are working, and our safety record is improving.”

Background: Oil and Gas Drilling 

Fatalities in the oil and gas industry began rising sharply in 2011, peaking at 141 deaths nationwide in 2014.  Olsen describes the problems in Texas:

Work in Texas’ oil and gas fields involves long hours, extreme weather and physical contact with dangerous machinery under the best of circumstances. But the dearth of safety standards, the lack of government inspections, and shoddy practices followed by many oil and gas companies have left a toll of badly injured workers.

In 2012, 79 lost limbs, 82 were crushed, 92 suffered burns and 675 broke bones in work-related accidents reported to insurance carriers.

“It’s like the Wild West out there,” said Joseph Melugin, a Houston attorney who has represented workers disabled in oil field accidents and the families of the dead. “Some well service companies go to great lengths to appear to have strong safety programs. Others don’t bother.”

And she also reported that many oilfield injuries go unreported, partly because until two years ago, employers were only required to report fatalities and catastrophes (three or more hospitalizations) to OSHA, but not one or two injuries, no matter how severe. Two years ago, OSHA issued new rules requiring employers to report not only fatalities and catastrophes, but also any hospitalization, amputation or loss of an eye.

As a result of these issues, OSHA Assistant Secretary David Michaels began a special focus on the industry in a number of areas, although addressing the industry’s problems came with a special set of difficult issues:

Standards: When OSHA addressed catastrophes in the petro-chemical industry by issuing the Process Safety Management standard in 1992, the oil and gas industry was excluded. Although the agency stated that it intended to issue a separate standard covering oil and gas extraction, that standard was never issued.  What that meant was that the oil and gas extraction industry was exempt from many OSHA standards, forcing the agency to use the burdensome and resource intensive General Duty Clause in order to issue citations in many areas where clear standards cover other industries.

In the Obama administration, OSHA began work on a revision of the Process Safety Management standard and was considering wither including oil and gas in the PSM standard or creating a separate standard. It is unclear what the fate of that revision will be under the Trump administration.  OSHA also began activity enforcing the use of Fire Resistant Clothing under its personal protective equipment standard, a safety provision frequently ignored by the industry until then.

OSHA also issued alerts and added fracking to the Silica standard that was issued in 2016 after NIOSH found that 47% of samples at fracking sites showed silica exposures greater than the old OSHA permissible exposure limit.

Industry Structure: The structure of the upstream oil and gas industry also make it hard for OSHA to enforce. First, it is often difficult to identify where drilling operations are located and when these worksites are active. They are often located in very remote locations and many of the operations are short and unpredictable. 

Furthermore, he multi/joint-employer structure of the industry presents many legal challenges to traditional enforcement. Drilling operations are generally not owned by the big petro-chemical companies, but are owned and operated by smaller, separate companies. Further complicating the problem is the “company man,” a representative of the oil or gas company or the operator on a drilling location who is responsible for drilling supervision and operational issues. The company man as intermediary, which often makes it legally difficult to cite the operator or owner of the rigs. Recognizing the legal problem, Michaels warned the industry that even if legal issues kept the owner or operator from being cited, OSHA would nevertheless name the owner or operator of a well in press releases when issuing citations to the downline drilling company.

Severe Violator Program: OSHA’s Severe Violator Program was created in 2010 in order to emphasize those employers who had a special disregard for workplace safety and health.  The SVEP list would publicly name companies and allow OSHA to follow up on inspections of the company, both in the cited facility as well as other facilities across the nation owned by the company.  The SVEP program succeeded OSHA’s Enhanced Enforcement Program (EEP) that was created under the Bush administration to go after violators that had experienced multiple deaths. That program had come under serious criticism by the Department of Labor Inspector General for excluding too many companies and was replaced by SVEP.

Lise Olsen at the Chronicle criticized OSHA because OSHA’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program does not include any of the Texas oil and gas companies that had reported multiple fatalities and none of six that had reported 10 or more fatal accidents to OSHA nationwide from 2007-2012, either through a single company or interrelated subsidiaries.”

Oil and gas sector fatalities peaked in 2014 with 141 workers killed across the nation.  As a result of those figures and the Chronicle investigation, OSHA added oil and gas to the SVEP criteria in 2015.  The OSHA memo stated that  “Over the last twenty years, upstream operations have experienced a fatality rate that has ranged from five to eight times greater than the national average for all U.S. industries [U.S. DOL BLS]. Therefore, the Agency believes that a change in its SVEP policy related to upstream oil and gas drilling and well-servicing operations is warranted.”

Compliance Assistance 

Because of the difficulty in enforcement and the fact that the top players in the industry recognized the serious problem, OSHA actively pursued a number of compliance assistance activities, including web resources, publications, hazard alerts about silica hazards and tank gauging hazards, and training materials.  OSHA also formed an Alliance with the National Service, Transmission, Exploration & Production Safety (STEPS) Network, an oil and gas industry organization founded in 2003 in South Texas by OSHA and industry, in an attempt to reduce injuries and fatalities in that region. 


Deaths in the oil and gas sector have fallen recently — down to 62 fatalities in 2016 — partly as activity in the oil fields has slackened due to falling oil prices, and (hopefully) due to OSHA’s increased activity in the sector. But as oil and gas prices pick up again, the country will again be faced with more workers, working long hours in hazardous conditions — this time with a safety agency weakened by hiring freezes and lack of leadership.  One hopes that the industry will pick up the slack and redouble their efforts to ensure the safety of workers in this industry. Unfortunately, the the fatality in Texas last year and the catastrophic explosion yesterday doesn’t fill me with confidence.

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