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Death Rates Amongst Oil Workers Spike to Alarming Levels

Posted By Arnold & Itkin || 30-May-2015

There is more than one cost to the incredible need for energy in the United States and it isn’t fiscal: it is the lives of workers in the countless oil fields throughout the nation. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 600 workers died on the job between 2002 and 2007. During that 5 year stretch, the deaths per year spiked by approximately 70% from 72 in 2002 to an estimated 120 in 2007. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, oil and gas workers saw a fatality rate of more than 29 deaths per 100,000 workers from 2002 and 2007, which is 7 times the average.

Unfortunately, it is a number that does not appear to be slowing down. Many point toward the general increase of worker in the oil and gas industry, which is tied directly to the early millennia drilling boom. However, that isn’t enough to explain the grisly number of deaths in oil and gas fields.

According to experts, there are several factors that have led to the increasing death rate:

  • The Increase in Workers - From 2002 to 2007, the number of oil and gas workers rose from 290,000 to 428,000. There is also a general increase in the number of jobs available, with about 740 land-based oil and gas rigs operating in 2002 as compared to 2,000 today.

  • Inexperience of Workers - In the mid-1980s, most of the experienced workers left the industry, meaning today’s workers are often brand new. As Mark Altom of the Energy Training Council said, “A lot of the rig crews are made up of people who were working at Wal-Mart yesterday. Literally.” Many of these workers are young and many speak little English.

  • High-Pressure Environment - Oilfields are dangerous places to work with workers being constantly surrounded by heavy machinery that have the potential to cause catastrophic or life-threatening injuries in an instant. Unfortunately, there are far too many lapses in workplace safety with overseeing government agencies rarely giving tough penalties.

  • Drug & Alcohol Abuse - Oilfield workers are often given extremely tough schedules, with many of them being asked to work 12-hour shifts and labor for up to two weeks non-stop. To get through this grueling schedule and demanding work, many turn to methamphetamines.

West Texas Oilfield Worker Killed in Tragic Accident

Dangers of the oilfield are illustrated by the story of Brandon Garrett, who had been working for two months on a West Texas oilfield when he was killed. In 2007, he had been working with four other crew members to repair a plugged drill bit. The supervisor split the men into two different groups to quickly get the rig back into operation. Garrett had been standing on top of a motorized spool of steel cable when another crew member accidentally activated it; he was pulled into the machine.

Per an OSHA inspector, "Instead of doing one job at a time, both jobs were done simultaneously, resulting in a fatal accident.” It was also reported that Garrett was performing a different job than his regular assignment. In the end, his company was cited for four safety violation (two of which were identical to those issued in the prior year). The company was then ordered to pay roughly $23,000 for the violations; however, negations led to one violation being dropped and fines being reduced by half.

One of the Nation’s Worst Workplace Safety Law Violators

At the time of the incident, Garrett had been employed by Patterson-UTI Energy, which is the second largest oil and gas drilling company in the nation. Per a computer analysis of OSHA data by the Associated Press, at least 20 employees of Patterson-UTI died between 2002 and 2007; in comparison, no other oil and gas company saw more than 5 fatal accidents during that span of time.

In April, the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee released a report stating that Patterson-UTI was one of the worst workplace safety law violators. That same report showed OSHA had been extremely lenient with them, claiming their enforcement actions had been an equivalent of a “slap on the wrist.” Per the report, between November 2003 and April 2007, the company was fined $432,000 for violations; however, all but $115,000 were forgiven.

The chairman of Patterson-UTI told the AP that the company has recently ramped up efforts to increase safety on the job. In fact, over the last three years, they have spent about $1.5 billion to overhaul safety training and to upgrade older equipment. Data shows such efforts have been successful with fewer accidents occurring.

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