The Black Gold Rush: A Cry for Increased Safety Regulations for Oil Drilling in Texas and Beyond

With notable events drawing international attention to American offshore drilling activity, it comes as no surprise that government authorities have taken extensive measures to tighten safety regulations in the industry, especially to protect the lives of workers involved in every day operations. While working in the industry involves certain inherent risks, investigations by entities such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and special commissions like the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill effectively uncover areas where reasonable measures can be taken to increase the on-site safety of workers.

Unfortunately, this effort has not been applied on land. One would think the two industries are alike enough by nature to go hand-in-hand in matters such as this. However, because industry leaders insist upon the "uniqueness" on onshore drilling, it has been left largely untouched by safety regulations, workers' rights protections, and even remedies to hold employers accountable to the condition of their work-sites.

The Houston Chronicle recently spearheaded an in-depth look into what is being done, or rather, what is not being done, to protect the safety and health of workers involved in onshore drilling. Attention is being called to Texas especially, where a boom of oil drilling has brought prosperity to corporations and even local economies but left dozens of families devastated with little means of recompense and a bleak outlook on efforts to increase safety regulations for corporation employers.

The Bloody Boom of Oil Drilling and Fracking

The article released by the Houston Chronicle on the subject opens with a retelling of the real-life tragedy of a West Texas family who lost their patriarch to a tragic, yet completely avoidable incident. The 40-year-old worker was strapped by a safety harness to rig mast which collapsed on top of him, claiming his life. The accident occurred after a superintendent increased drill power for a pipe that got stuck underground. Court documents show that the power was raised above normal operating limits and caused a surge that led to the mast toppling down, crushing the victim underneath. The worker's son-in-law, who worked on that same oil-field, found his body under a pile of debris that required two cranes to clear away.

This is just one of the dozens of accidents that take place on the oilfields of Texas every year. Since the burst of prosperity brought on by oil drilling in Texas, more than 100,000 workers have sacrificed their livelihood and even their lives working in gas-related jobs within the state. In 2012, 65 oil and gas related fatalities occurred in Texas alone, and between the years of 2007 and 2012, 40 percent of the 663 nationwide onshore oil-related fatalities occurred in the state as well. Since the oil drilling and fracking industry took off in 2007, Texas has been a center of oil and gas prosperity and therefore, the epicenter of the cry for increased worker safety in the industry.

The Houston Chronicle found disturbing answers as to why these incidents are left unregulated by government officials. Despite the major changes of offshore safety brought on by nationwide tragedies like the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010, the federal government has put off such regulations onshore for more than two decades.

It's not as though there are no safety standards in the industry. In fact, the OSHA found that 78 percent of Texas accidents involved violations of safety regulations already in place—meaning they were likely avoidable had safety been a priority on site. The deficit is not in safety standards, much of which comes from common sense, but in the enforcement of and accountability to these standards. Unlike the offshore oil industry, OSHA is only required to investigate accidents that either kill workers or send at least three workers to the hospital.

Out of the 18,000 injury or illness cases in the industry since 2007, only 150 qualified for safety investigations. To draw comparison, per federal law, the Coast Guard conducts thorough investigations into all offshore deaths and any maritime related accident while the Interior Department's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement inspectors are sent to investigate all injury-related incidents including fires, blasts, and material spills offshore. In the offshore industry, accountability is traced from the top down, starting with the heads of corporations and followed down the line of supervision. The Deepwater Horizon incident has only caused these practices to become more rigorous and strict.

Dry Deserts of Unregulated Land Operation

Meanwhile, back on land, there are a mere 95 OSHA safety inspectors to oversee all of the onshore drilling and fracking operations in Texas. There is no deficit of incidents—only a lack of motivation to do anything about the obvious lack of safety on oil fields in the state and throughout the country.

In 2012, the following numbers were gathered from work-related insurance claims made by injured onshore oil field workers or families of those who had been killed:

  • 79 workers lost a limb
  • 82 suffered crush injuries
  • 92 suffered burn injuries
  • 675 suffered fractured or broken bones

What is even more is that corporations and employers refuse to admit to the need of increased safety on their worksites in this industry, let alone their responsibility to facilitate reasonably safe work environments for their employers. The Chronicle's article found that three major companies in the state of Texas would not even allow OSHA inspectors to enter their premises following an incident without an inspection warrant.

There is no shortage of rules, regulations, and even enforcement for other industrial operations. As discussed previously, the offshore industry has been held under intense scrutiny and stringent regulation, especially since the BP Deepwater Horizon incident. Likewise, plant and refinery operations were given their own set of safety regulations following a series of tragedies in the 90's, including a Pasadena facility accident that claimed 23 lives. OSHA officials intentionally left the onshore oil drilling industry out of these initiatives as government officials insisted that separate standards would be issued to meet the industry's individual traits and weaknesses. This promise came late in the Bush administration's run and when election rolled through, changing key players, it was pushed beneath the pile of other initiatives.

West, Texas: The Blast Heard Around the Country

It was not until the tragedy in West, Texas that the Obama administration revisited the industry, promising a deeper look into what can be done for worker safety from the federal level.

At the base level, work conditions involve dangers such as:

  • Intense weather conditions
  • Long hours (24 hour operations)
  • Physical contact with hot, heavy and dangerous machinery

The trouble is that much of work-related safety regulations are dealt with on the state level and in Texas, employers are not even required to offer workers' compensation insurance. Anecdotes from Texas workers and their families relay that many worksites fail to even provide hydration to workers despite consistent triple-digit, intensely humid climate during summer months. If something as simple as water is being overlooked in the interest of efficiency and production, it comes as no surprise that companies would try to continue flying under the radar for more serious safety concerns.

Many of these leading figures will openly claim they hold worker safety in high regard, supposedly providing their employees with the ability to report safety hazards and even halt operations until further investigated but without enforcement and accountability, it is unfortunately understandable why these promises are seldom put to practice. There is little whistleblower protection afforded to onshore industry workers in Texas and screening/training practices are largely modified according to momentary market demand. Equipment being used on these sites is reported as often old, outdated, and unmaintained. The least experienced are often sent underground to perform the most dangerous tasks while those in charge often do everything possible to bypass accountability from injured workers and government officials alike.

It would be encouraging to workers and their families if federal and state authorities came together in an effort to improve the situation. However, several obstacles stand in the way of progress beginning with the influence held by many of the oil giants in Texas. As one of the best things to happen to the state's economy, the industry holds a substantial degree of influence—masterfully executed by utilizing lobbying efforts behind closed doors. To push more stringent regulations would mean higher overhead, slower production, and more financial liability for corporations.

The need for reform is crying out from within the homes of grieving families and victimized workers who were only trying to support themselves and their loved ones. If any improvement can come of this situation, it will be from a coordinated effort by employee interest groups, federal authorities, state officials and private corporate industry leaders.

Learn more about the need for and efforts to increase safety on oilfields throughout the country by reading the full article by The Houston Chronicle here.

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