Oilfield Worker Deaths Spike Along With Rise In Production

Photo by: Dave Fehling

Roughnecks repairing leaking oil well near downtown Kilgore.
Oil drilling companies are on a hiring binge. Demand for crude is climbing just as much of their workforce is heading for retirement. It's a rare bright spot in the job market, but there’s a definite dark side.

That’s the sound of jobs being created in Texas — an oil rig drilling in Kilgore, two hundred miles north of Houston. The demand for workers in the energy sector is at its highest level in decades.

It’s punishing work — with shifts of twelve to fourteen hours a day for up to two weeks — and it can also be deadly. Kenny Jordan leads the Association of Energy Service Companies, based in Northwest Houston. He says injuries and deaths are up because drilling is up.

“If you go back and look at the rig count from past years and correlate it to the fatalities within our industry, it’s got almost a direct correlation.”

A hundred thirty-eight oil and gas extraction workers died on the job last year across the U.S. — the most in more than twenty years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Texas accounted for nearly half of those deaths. It also accounted for nearly half the increase in active oil drilling rigs, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Ryan Hill heads the oil and gas extraction program at the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

“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. They didn’t grow up around the industry, especially in some of the newer oil fields. And then some of the older rigs are brought back into service during times of high demand as well.”

As the pace of drilling increases, less experienced workers are more likely to make mistakes. But even veteran workers can be hurt or killed if they cut corners on safety. Andrew Dao, an attorney with the Houston-based Buzbee Law Firm, says that’s what’s happening now.

“Although it is an industry that has more danger than a number of other jobs out there, it’s unacceptable for any of these companies to simply accept that, hey, there are just going to be people injured as a result of the work. These companies need to be proactive with safety, stop looking solely at their bottom line, and find ways to curb these accidents from happening.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, is ramping up safety inspections in an effort to match the increased pace of drilling. It’s also conducting joint safety exercises with the industry. David Bates heads the OSHA office in Oklahoma City.

“If they have an accident or fatality out on a job site, they’ll stand down. They’ll stop the operation and look to see what happened and what needs to be done to prevent a future occurrence.”

OSHA and energy companies have been halting drilling and holding safety events, also called stand downs, at both the local and regional levels. A nationwide stand down is set for November 14.

Bio photo of Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Business Reporter

Andrew Schneider joined KUHF in January 2011, after more than a decade as a print reporter for The Kiplinger Letter...