As drilling for oil and gas has surged in Texas, so have injuries and deaths at drilling rigs and well sites. It has become a significant concern to Federal regulators and to the industry. But there are promising efforts to reduce accidents. One of those was hatched in South Texas.
The number of workers killed in Texas “mining”, as the Department of Labor classifies oil and gas drilling, has risen in the past decade. Deaths rose from 35 in 2003 to a high of 49 in 2007 and totaled 45 in 2010.
In South Texas, where drilling has surged in the Eagle Ford shale with its rich deposits of gas and oil, seven workers died on-the-job last year alone, up from three in 2010 according to Michael Rivera, director of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA’s) office in Corpus Christi.
“It may be true that there’s a lot of folks in the oil and gas industry doing things a certain way and don’t want to change. The truth is, something has to change because we need to affect these fatalities.”
The deaths are often gruesome. In 2007, at a drilling site in West Texas, a steel cable sliced a rig worker in half.
One of the more common causes of death is classified by the Department of Labor as “struck by.” That was the case when a worker, setting up a drilling rig in Cotula, Texas in November 2010, died when the bottom of the rig “came loose…swung free and fatally struck” the worker according to a government report.
Other workers have died when “struck by” hunks of metal sent flying when something goes wrong with a well where gas and oil can come up at high pressure.
“He explained to me they were going to go work on a gas well, ” recalled Ausena Olivas about the last conversation she ever had with her husband.
Marcelino Olivas was part of a crew sent to work on a gas well near Carlsbad, New Mexico in 2009. According to an account in a law suit filed by his family, Olivas and the crew thought the well had been depressurized as they began disassembling it.
“So they started working on it, and apparently, it just blew,” said Ausena Olivas.
When it “blew”, some of the heavy metal parts struck her husband, killing him, according to court documents. The company that reportedly owned the gas well would not comment to StateImpact Texas about the accident.
“There’s an attitude of get ‘er done, hurry up, time is money. And that pressure is constant on every job” alleges Kevin Glasheen. He’s a lawyer in Lubbock who handled Olivas’ case.
When Marcelino Olivas died, the Federal government was already investigating the disturbing number of deaths and injuries nationwide. In 2008, a government and industry safety group, the National Occupational Research Agenda (NORA), began meeting to try to find reasons behind the high death rate and what could be done to reduce it.
The statistics were alarming. According to government data, from 2003 to 2008, 648 workers were fatally injured nationwide, resulting in a fatality rate for gas and oil extraction workers that was eight times higher than the average of all occupations.
The NORA group found conditions that might seem to be a recipe for danger: drilling operations can run 24/7 in all kinds of weather, often very hot or very cold. Workers use large tools to move heavy pipes and other metal equipment.
Shifts can last 12 hours and the work can go on day after day for one or two weeks. Even getting to the drill sites can be dangerous: rigs often are in remote areas where the roads are rough, sometimes just dirt or gravel, running for miles.
What’s more, the group found that some of the workers hired to meet a skyrocketing demand for labor were not seasoned roughnecks.
“During times of high demand like today, a lot of new workers are brought to the industry. And these are workers who may not have any experience in the oil field,” said Ryan Hill. Hill is an epidemiologist with NIOSH, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health agency and a co-chair of the NORA group.
Hill said the group also found that older rigs that had been mothballed were now being put back in use but lacked some of the safety features found on newer models. Size also seemed to matter: smaller drilling and well service companies were found to have higher rates of deadly injuries.
That last point was an issue seized upon by a safety expert Rick Ingram.
“Most of the companies having the serious incidents were the smaller companies. So they were the ones that could least afford the health and safety programs and had fewer resources,” said Ingram, who works for oil giant BP.
Ingram was a key player in developing a project that is showing promise. It began in 2004 in South Texas where drilling and deaths were both on the rise in the Eagle Ford Shale.
They call the project the STEPS Network (South Texas Exploration and Production Safety). The challenge was to change a way of thinking, the very culture of a decades-old industry that prided itself on going after the oil and gas, no matter how tough the conditions.
STEPS was a way to get drilling companies of all sizes to meet monthly with OSHA, the federal safety agency.
“Instead of running from the regulator, we’re actually embracing them as partners,” said Ingram.
At one meeting, a slideshow featured an image that asked the participants to “imagine you or your co-worker is not going home”.
The point was to imagine knowing that you’d be killed that day in a rig accident.
Anecdotally, both Ingram and OSHA said they’re seeing results. They said they’re hearing stories from the field about crews now refusing to take shortcuts, confident that management will stand behind them.