Oil Boom Kills More Workers, But Government Takes No Action

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Just last Friday, oil drilling claimed the life of another worker. Nathan James Scott, 26, was struck by a welding truck and died at a drilling site in Converse County, Texas, owned by Houston-based EOG Resources. An investigation into his death is in progress. But federal regulations and investigations haven’t been enough to stem the climbing death and injury rates in the oil and gas industry. In fact, the federal government has declined to issue even basic safety rules for onshore drilling, and is in the midst of cutting funding for workplace safety inspections.

The fatality rate for workers in onshore oil and gas drilling is startlingly high compared with other industries, seven times higher than the average, and injuries are far more common. In Texas, the oil industry kills more of its workers than any other. And as an investigation by the Houston Chronicle found, the federal government isn’t taking action to make it safer.

Six hundred sixty three workers were killed nationwide in oil-related accidents between 2007 and 2012, and hundreds more were injured. The federal government developed detailed safety rules for refineries and chemical plants in 1992, promising to get to drilling later. Safety regulations and inspections for offshore rigs greatly improved after accidents like 2010’s Deepwater Horizon explosion, which killed 11 workers, and the involvement of the Coast Guard and the Interior Department mean investigations are much more frequent. But there have been no new worker safety measures for onshore oil fields.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) doesn’t even investigate a vast majority of accidents, only those that kill workers or cause three or more inpatient hospitalizations. That totals only 150 of 18,000 work-related injuries and illnesses in Texas in the last six years, the Houston Chronicle found. Seventy eight percent of those involved safety violations, meaning they could have been prevented with proper safety precautions. With only 95 OSHA inspectors monitoring all the workplaces in Texas, and few with any specialization in oil or gas, it’s no wonder safety standards are so lax.

A year after oil industry deaths reached their most recent peak of 138 in 2012, OSHA was actually stripped of tens of millions of dollars in funding by sequestration, cutting the training of new inspectors.

And the boom in oil production is likely making things even worse. The industry hired 23 percent more workers between 2009 and 2012, but the death rate climbed over 100 percent in the same period. Ryan Hill, head of the oil and gas extraction program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, attributed it to new, inexperienced workers pulled into the industry by booming production.

“During times of high demand like now, there are new workers brought into this industry, and these are workers that may not have relevant training and experience,” Hill told NPR.