Two people are dead and nine injured from an oil well explosion in West Texas Wednesday morning. Those are two more workers to add to the rising count of on-the-job fatalities in America’s oil fields.
Updated data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that oil worker deaths rose 3.2 percent for 2008–2012, to a total 545 total. The Houston Chronicle reports that Texas led the states with 216 deaths or 40 percent of overall fatalities over the same period. Many more suffered a temporary or permanent injury on the job: 18,000 workers had amputations, were crushed, burned, broke bones, or suffered other work-related injuries.
The oil and gas industry fatality rate is almost eight times the average industry rate. There are a couple of reasons behind that, and most of them suggest these deaths are preventable. In Texas, 78 percent of fatal accidents were safety violations — meaning, they could conceivably have been prevented with tougher oversight. Experts say worker fatigue from 12- to 14-hour shifts and inexperience are also both to blame in the oil boom rush. Other sites of rising deaths are all located in states that have had drilling booms: North Dakota and Pennsylvania both reported 300 percent increases 2008–2012 compared to the years prior, and Oklahoma saw a 24 percent rise. Another man died at a North Dakota drilling operation this week from a toxic gas byproduct from oil drilling.
Loving County Sheriff Billy Hopper said his best guess was that a natural gas leak or high-pressure fumes caused the explosion. “I’m kind of dumbfounded myself,” he told the LA Times. “There was no active drilling on location. Just a truck and one of these equipment things to take off the control head.”
Neither RKI Exploration & Production, the company that owns the exploding well, nor the contractor, Crescent Services, will likely end up being held accountable, if the accident was indeed a preventable situation. None of the Texas oil or gas companies responsible for fatalities landed on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s most dangerous workplaces list. Unfortunately, stronger worker protections typically only follow tragedy.
The offshore industry faced new oversight after 11 workers died in the BP oil spill, but the onshore industry faces few standards. “But when 60 workers die one at a time, no one pays any attention,” a former assistant regional administrator for OSHA in Texas told the Houston Chronicle’s Lisa Olsen. Texas’s OSHA has 95 inspectors, none of whom have specific training related to oil and gas industries.