Something strange is happening in the U.S. oil and gas industry. Oil companies, analysts, training groups, and even police officers say that safety standards and regulations have never been tougher, and yet statistics show that working on an oil field has never been more dangerous.
Last year 142 oil field workers died, an increase over 2013, but still less than in other industries. For comparison, there were 874 fatalities in the construction industry, 341 manufacturing fatalities, and the 477 deaths in the trucking industry in 2014. So why did both safety standards and fatalities rise at the same time?
It’s a contradiction that’s concerned many in the oil and gas industry, especially during a period of increased scrutiny. In 2014, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and a department of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention signed a two-year agreement with the National Service, Transmission, Exploration and Production Safety Network. As part of the partnership, OSHA is helping develop new safety measures and oil and gas training programs to prevent worker injury and death.
Plus, most experts agree that U.S. oil companies have much tougher standards today than ever before. In oil-producing states like Colorado, oil companies regularly meet with local officials in monthly safety councils to develop plans for preventing injury. In Fort Lupton, Colorado, Police Chief Ken Poncelow says he’s seen oil companies become much more selective about which workers are allowed on oil sites.
“We used to have problems with workers with alcohol and drugs, and that doesn’t happen any more,” Poncelow said. “We recently had an oil field guy who got caught drinking and driving a company truck. He wasn’t employed the next morning. A lot of things have changed over the last few years.”
“Back 10 or 20 years ago, oil companies were a lot more interested in coming in, drilling and making as much money as they could and then getting out,” said Carrie Jordan, president of certification company MJS Safety.
“The oil industry has put a number of major industry initiatives in place since the Texas City refinery explosion in 2005 and the BP Macondo blowout in 2010,” says Marty Stetzer, President, EKT Interactive, Inc. “Industry bodies like the Offshore Energy Safety Institute at Texas A&M has been conducting in-depth reviews of industry training programs and competences needed to improve offshore operations safety. The weak link seems to be effectively translating the desire for safety improvement across the massive maintenance and operations subcontractor community. This is a real problem because the communications and technical skills of the field workers have deteriorated with the continued weaknesses in the secondary school system. There are industry initiatives in the US Gulf Coast to focus education and training efforts at the high schools to help overcome this problem.”
Not only that, but most companies have strict background checks and certification requirements. Yet despite all these precautions, a new report says that 2014 was a dangerous year for U.S. oil workers. In 2014, 142 oil workers died, a 27% increase over 2013. That number even surprised senior safety specialists with the AFL-CIO, which carefully monitors workplace safety around the country.
For the time being, OSHA, the CDC, safety councils, oil companies, regulators, and even local police departments are sharing information to ensure a safer environment.