It’s starting to feel like Oscar season here, except instead of movies, it’s excellent investigative pieces about workplace safety and health that come out at the end of the year.
Earlier this week, we had Howard Berkes’ story about coal miners dying of preventable lung disease, we have Peter Waldman’s Bloomberg article about immigrant workers enduring abuses in jobs Americans don’t want. and today we have a piece by legendary investigative reporter Jim Morris on workers killed in America’s oil fields.
Morris’s piece, Death in the Oilfields, is Part 6 of a six-part series entitled Blowout: Inside America’s Energy Gamble by the Center for Public Integrity, along with the Texas Tribune, AP and Newsy. Focusing on last year’s tragedy in which five men were killed on an Oklahoma oil rig, Morris takes on the hazards in the oil drilling industry:
Drilling is an inherently dangerous undertaking, with a fatality rate nearly five times that of all industries in the United States combined in 2014, the last year such rates on oil and gas extraction were published by the government. Production pressures — and the temptation to cut corners — intensify during boom times, as America is experiencing now due to a rush of fossil-fuel exports.
The work of coaxing oil and gas from thousands of feet underground is performed in biting cold and breathtaking heat by stoics like Parker Waldridge, who burned to death at 60 in a driller’s cabin, known as a doghouse, atop the floor of Rig 219.
“It is a macho world,” said Frank Parker, a safety consultant in Magnolia, Texas, who has studied the industry and its workers for more than 50 years. “They get up in the morning and eat nails for breakfast. We need those people to do that kind of work. We’ve just got to find a way not to kill them.”
We need those people to do that kind of work. We’ve just got to find a way not to kill them.”
In return for the deadly risks, oil workers receive less protection from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration than other chemical industry workers:
The upstream industry is exempt from key OSHA rules that apply to other industries. It does not have to comply, for example, with the process safety management standard, which requires that refineries, chemical plants and other high-hazard operations adopt procedures to prevent fires, explosions and chemical leaks.
OSHA decided not to include upstream in the original standard in 1992 because it had proposed a rule specifically aimed at drilling. That rule was killed by the White House, whose occupant at the time, George H.W. Bush, had run his own oil company in Texas before entering politics. Unnerved by a catastrophic blast at a Texas fertilizer plant in 2013, then-President Barack Obama ordered OSHA to begin the process of updating the rule. The agency sought, among other things, to bring upstream into the fold.
The response was chilly. The International Association of Drilling Contractors said the removal of the exemption would do “little to improve safety,” impose “unnecessary regulatory burdens and ultimately … result in Americans being put out of work.” The exemption stayed.
Protection from some toxic chemicals is also inferior to that provided other workers:
The industry, for example, is exempt from a 1987 OSHA rule designed to strictly limit exposure to benzene, a highly volatile, carcinogenic component of crude oil. Instead, it is subject to a far more lenient limit, dating to OSHA’s creation in 1971.
Benzene is often released during “flowback” operations at well sites in which hydraulic-fracturing fluids and volatile hydrocarbons are collected at the surface and sent to tanks or pits. The OSHA exposure limit for benzene in industries such as oil refining is one part per million averaged over an eight-hour workday. The short-term limit is 5 ppm over any 15-minute period. For upstream companies, the eight-hour ceiling is 10 ppm and there is no short-term limit at all.
Workers in the oil fields don’t just die from explosions. Morris describes the death of Gregory Claxton, an Iraq War veteran and the father of a 3-year-old boy, in Montague County, Texas, on February 14, 2015, while “tank gauging.”
It was part of his job to dip a bottle on a rope, known as a thief, into the tanks to collect a sample so the oil’s consistency, or specific gravity, could be ascertained. (The lighter the oil, the more it is worth). He also was to measure the oil’s depth and temperature to calculate the volume in the tank.
On the morning of his death, Claxton climbed onto a catwalk above a tank holding crude from Well 1H. Opening the hatch, he was hit with a wave of H2S. He died so suddenly that his body was found upright, as if frozen in place. After performing an autopsy, a pathologist with the Dallas County medical examiner’s office listed the cause of death as “Toxic effects of hydrogen sulfide.”
Opening the hatch, he was hit with a wave of H2S. He died so suddenly that his body was found upright, as if frozen in place.
Claxton was not alone.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, documented nine worker deaths nationwide during tank gauging between 2010 and 2014. These were likely due, NIOSH said, not to H2S but to inhalation of hydrocarbon gases or vapors or to asphyxiation by breathing oxygen-depleted air.
OSHA enforcement is difficult due to the fragmented nature of the industry. This is what OSHA had to deal with when investigating the Oklahoma disaster
The lease holder was Red Mountain Energy LLC; the well operator, Red Mountain Operating LLC. The latter hired Patterson-UTI as the drilling contractor. Waldridge, an independent contractor, was working for a project-management firm called Crescent Consulting LLC.
Only Patterson and Crescent received citations.
After an investigation, OSHA cited Patterson-UTI in July for six violations and proposed fines totaling $73,909; Patterson is contesting the citations. The agency cited Crescent Consulting for four violations and proposed fines totaling $36,586. It, too, is contesting. No citations were issued to either Red Mountain Energy or Red Mountain Operating.
“I’ve lost the man that I love, that I wanted to grow old with,” she said, her voice halting. “Not having him will affect me forever.” — Dianna Waldridge
What are the prospects of improvements for oil field workers? OSHA’s Process Safety Management standard modernization continues to languish on the agency’s “Long Term Agenda” with no guarantee that the agency will even consider the option of either expanding the standard to the oil fields or working on a separate oil field standard. What are the prospects?
David Michaels, who led OSHA at the time, said he met regularly with upstream leaders and they were not universally opposed to more regulation. Still, trade groups such as the American Petroleum Institute argued for the status quo, pointing to the industry’s relatively low injury rate. Michaels didn’t buy it. “They have a low injury rate because they often don’t report their injuries,” he said in a recent interview. “They have a very high fatality rate, so it’s simply not possible they have a low injury rate.”
There’s much more in the article. Read it and the rest of the series. It’s investigative reporters like Jim Morris and Howard Berkes who tell the stories that Americans need to hear — and need to act on. For the workers, and for their families.
Dianna, who still works cattle and grows wheat on the 320-acre ranch she and her husband bought a quarter-century ago, struggled to maintain her composure during the interview. “I’ve lost the man that I love, that I wanted to grow old with,” she said, her voice halting. “Not having him will affect me forever.”
The anguish caused by the Pryor Trust blowout extends beyond the dead workers’ families. In a September deposition for the Waldridge case, Sheriff Timothy Turner of Haskell County, Oklahoma — which adjoins Pittsburg County and is home to many oilfield workers — testified that the accident is a frequent topic of conversation among residents of southeastern Oklahoma.
“Every time there’s an incident with a Patterson rig now, it’s ‘Patterson killed those guys.’ … They believe that the person who oversaw that rig should be in jail,” Turner said.
“He murdered five people. That’s their belief.”