Deaths In Oil Drilling, And No Oversight In Texas

Oil Drilling Texas 2014

Photo By James Nielsen / Associated Press
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration keeps a list of “the worst of the worst” employers in the nation, and drilling companies with multiple fatalities should be on it, safety experts say.

SAN ANTONIO — The oil boom has brought Texas much prosperity, but also the stain of avoidable tragedies.

The numbers are staggering.

As the Houston Chronicle‘s Lise Olsen recently reported, 65 oil and gas workers in Texas died in 2012, a peak year for tragedy in the industry. Also in 2012, 79 workers lost limbs, 82 were crushed, 92 suffered burns and 675 broke bones in work-related accidents.

After reading that sad tally, we were left wondering how many of these accidents could have been avoided if the industry took worker safety seriously and if the federal government instilled worker-safety rules for onsite drilling.

These are people, not batteries that can just be swapped out. They have families and loved ones, and they labor in incredibly dangerous and challenging settings. Even under the safest conditions, this work will always be dangerous. But we are nowhere near the safest conditions.

As Olsen reported, for 22 years now the federal government has ignored the need for safety standards and procedures for onshore drilling. It’s instead allowed industry to use outdated technologies and practices.

This is particularly striking when compared to offshore drilling, which is closely monitored and demonstrably safer. Yes, the Deepwater Horizon disaster killed 11 people in 2010. But in 2012, nearly six times that number were killed in smaller onshore accidents.

“We see things in land drilling that were eliminated years ago offshore,” R. Dean Wingo, who recently retired from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, told Olsen.

Without rules and resources, OSHA is really a toothless agency. Out of 18,000 work-related injuries over the last six years in Texas, OSHA investigated about 150. These were accidents in which workers died or at least three workers were hospitalized.

But if smaller incidents had been investigated, larger accidents may have been avoided. There were many cases where OSHA investigators discovered safety hazards after a worker had died.

The agency is also hampered by a lack of investigators, who, in turn, lack expertise. There are 95 OSHA inspectors for all Texas worksites. Most do not have any expertise in the oil and gas industry.

There is also little coordination between OSHA and the Texas Railroad Commission, which monitors oil field fires and blowouts and can shut down operations when it uncovers serious problems.

An agency spokeswoman told us the Railroad Commission is always willing to coordinate with OSHA, but she couldn’t provide any information about how often that actually happens.

Clearly, the federal government needs to craft and implement safety rules for onshore drilling that mirror the ones used in offshore drilling.

The Railroad Commission and OSHA could also instill strict protocols about when the two agencies notify one another about safety concerns. After all, one agency has the power to shut down dangerous rigs and wells, and the other responds to and monitors safety concerns.

Finally, this is a time of austerity, but there is a need for additional OSHA inspectors in Texas, and likely other states dealing with oil and gas drilling, who specifically understand the industry.

There are some Texans who fear the federal government will interfere with the oil and gas boom through onerous regulations. These concerns are mostly expressed about environmental rules and regulations.

We hope, though, that all Texans would be supportive of safer working conditions for the people making this boom happen.


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