By - Michael Drost

Oil and gas worker safety under scrutiny after feds launch sweeping probe

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Oil and gas worker safety is getting an unprecedented looksie by the federal government, which is hoping to reduce the dangers faced by oil and gas workers, who suffer one of the highest mortality rates of any workforce in the country.

The Denver-based National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH), which is part of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is planning to distribute 625 questionnaires to oil workers in North Dakota, Texas, and an unnamed Appalachian state (possibly Ohio or Pennsylvania). The NIOSH says that the probe, which is expected to take three years to administer and compile, “will determine on-duty and off-duty factors that contribute to motor vehicle crashes, injuries and illness” among oil and gas workers.

According to the Department of Labor, oilfield work is among the most dangerous in the country, with an occupational fatality rate seven times higher than the general industry rate. In 2012 and 2013, 112 and 126 workers died across the oil and gas sector. Texas, the country’s biggest oil and gas producer by far, was home to 51 and 66 fatalities among oil, gas, and mining workers.

The questionnaires will be distributed to equipment and trucking yards, well sites, community centers, and temporary lodging structures that house workers at oil patches, commonly called “man camps.” NIOSH says that the probe came about in response to analyzing fatality numbers among oil and gas workers, and a need to gauge the dangers such workers deal with on a daily basis.

“We’ve analyzed fatality numbers, and we knew that fatality rates were high among oil field workers,” said Kyla Retzer, an epidemiologist with the institute’s oil and gas program, to the Denver Post. “But we haven’t talked to workers directly in a systematic way about some of their safety-related behaviors and what their concerns are.”

The questionnaires will ask workers about the types of work they perform on the job, the kind of injuries they have suffered, what they were doing when they were injured, the training they receive from employers about on-the-job safety, and whether they or their colleagues receive bonuses from employers for not reporting an injury or a certain length of time.

The probe comes as the federal regulators and oil industry executive try to work out the cost of complying with new federal safety rules designed to prevent well blowouts like the one that caused the 2010 BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Critics say that there is very little oversight of oil and gas companies, which has led to the increased death rate, along with a lack of comprehensive recording of oil-and-gas-related deaths.

“People in the production side work outrageous hours, in hostile climatic conditions and around equipment that is super-dangerous,” Denver-based attorney Randy Kelly told the Post. “It can be a brutal business.”

Kelly recently won a $6.5 million judgement against a company in charge of a well site in Weld County, Colorado. Kelly’s says the death of his client, Reyes Garcia, who died in well explosion in 2007, was caused by the company’s negligence.

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