Workplace Deaths Drop – But not in the Oil Industry

Workplace Deaths Drop – But not in the Oil Industry by Yang Wang, Lise Olsen, February 10, 2013,
Oil and gas field services and drilling workers were killed on the job in Texas more than those in any other profession, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis of five years of fatal accidents investigated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.Overall, workplace deaths have declined in Texas – but not in the oil patch where 197 perished on the job, an average of 39 per year, worker fatality statistics from 2007-2011 show. OSHA investigated at least 84 cases; dozens more died in job-related traffic accidents OSHA does not probe. …The death toll already has prompted an unusual response. OSHA in January called for a voluntary “stand down” for all oil and gas employers in fields all across Texas and four other states – temporary work stoppages meant to draw attention to potentially life-threatening risks. So far, 88 companies have signed up to participate in events through Feb. 28. …No oil patch employer had more recent OSHA-reported deaths in Texas than Nabors Drilling USA LLC and its sister company Nabors Well Services, both subsidiaries of a Bermuda-based corporation with headquarters in Houston. The companies reported five deaths statewide, and two more in North Dakota and Wyoming from 2007 to 2011.Only three employers had three or more fatal accidents in the Lone Star State: Nabors had five; Unit Texas Drilling LLC, a division of an Oklahoma-based drilling company, had four and Express Energy Services, a Houston well supply business, had four since 2007, based on the newspaper’s analysis of OSHA reports and information from the companies.OSHA found violations at all five Nabors’ fatal accident sites, and the company was initially assessed $104,375 – a small fraction of the reported $16 million annual compensation of the company’s CEO, one of Houston’s highest paid executives. Nabors contested the fines, which were later cut in half

Most oil and gas workers’ deaths occurred in remote rural areas, received little or no publicity and drew miniscule fines.One Unit Texas employee, for instance, Henry Garza, 45, fell to his death on May 21, 2007, at a rig near tiny Stewards Mill, a ghost town and state historic site with a population of only 22. Unit was fined $1,625.In all, Houston-based Express Energy has been assessed $5,650 by OSHA for violations in two of three fatal accidents. (A fourth in 2012 remains under review.)It paid $2,500 after Robert L. Jost Jr., was killed by flying debris in a blowout at a natural gas well on April 22, 2009, near Franklin, records show. His widow later filed a lawsuit seeking $1.2 million, according to bankruptcy court records, and the lawsuit was settled for an undisclosed sum.Two other Express Energy employees died after getting caught in or were struck by drilling equipment.

Nabors’ largest fine in any Texas fatality came in the case of Sergio Rincon.Rincon, a seasoned rigger who also had worked as a cook, had returned for one more year of rig work to pay off tuition bills he’d accumulated by sending his daughter to law school and paying for his son’s final year in college at the University of Texas at San Antonio.He’d planned to quit to devote time to his first grandchild. Instead he was struck in the head in 2009 when a metal attachment fell from a forklift operated by a co-worker at Rig number 776. The attachment had been incorrectly installed and the driver of the recently acquired forklift confused its control levers, abruptly tipping the basket and sending the heavy metal piece flying off toward Rincon, records show. OSHA inspectors initially found six serious violations and proposed a $36,275 penalty, which was later reduced. A jury awarded $8.9 million to Rincon’s family. …”We would give it all back if only we could have my dad back.”

Oil patch fatalities were reported statewide in many booming areas, including in the Permian Basin near Midland, the Barnett Shale play in the Fort Worth Basin and Eagle Ford Shale play in Southeast Texas as well as in East Texas. From 2007-2011, Midland County and adjacent Ector County in the Permian Basin each had six reported deaths. “Generally what we’re witnessing in the industry, particularly in South Texas with the Eagle Ford Shale, is that they cannot staff these wells quick enough and they are putting people in positions that they are ill-trained and ill-prepared to handle,” said John Escamilla, Rincon’s family’s attorney.

Government safety inspectors found many oil field victims were fatally injured by flying metal or got caught in equipment, including rotary drilling machines. Others were electrocuted, fell or inhaled poisonous gases. Ralph Hudspeth, 56, a Nabors Well Supply employee, for example, was fatally struck when metal pipes shifted and fell from a forklift at a High Island well in 2011. Filiberto Salazar Jr., a married 27-year-old father of two, died after getting pinned while washing the bottom of a rig in 2008 in the Eagle Ford Shale region. Two other Nabors employees, Joshua Smith, a 28-year-old father and former volunteer firefighter from Mississippi, and floorhand Victor Aviles, a 28-year-old Mexican immigrant, were electrocuted at East Texas drill sites in 2007 and 2010. Aviles had worked in his latest assignment as a floorhand only five weeks when he climbed into the upper section of a rig derrick near Clayton to repair a lighting fixture, according to an OSHA report. He was electrocuted on Aug. 20, 2007. Safety inspectors found that he and another worker received inadequate training and were exposed to damaged electrical cords. His widow won a wrongful death settlement that cost Nabors $1.1 million in payments and attorneys’ fees, court records show.

Smith had been working for Nabors for two years – commuting hundreds of miles from his Mississippi hometown, where he had a wife and two children, to remote Texas sites every week or two, said LaDale Williams, Smith’s longtime firefighting buddy. Smith had recently been promoted to “motorman” when he was electrocuted near Henderson on Oct. 26, 2010. His lifeless body was recovered near a water well’s electric pump control box – its electrical circuits had been improperly grounded, records show. Soon after, Nabors offered Smith’s best friend a job. “I didn’t take it,” Williams said. “It didn’t feel right.” [Emphasis added]

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