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Disposable Workers of the Oil and Gas Fields

If you don't have a college degree, it's the best job in the West. Unless you die unnoticed.This report originally appeared in High Country News.

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Joshua Duane Riedel, a 23-year-old college student, grew up in Worland, Wyo., and, through hard work more than talent, became a star at Worland High School. In 1999, the statewide Casper Star-Tribune named Josh Riedel one of Wyoming's top 25 high-school football players.

His dream was to become an airline pilot, attending Rocky Mountain College Aviation School in Billings, Mont. Then, because the family could no longer afford the cost of the aviation school, he transferred to the University of Wyoming. Shaking off disappointment, he went to Florida and earned college credits while working as a lifeguard at Disney World. But he came back to Worland for one more summer to build up his savings to finish college.

He got a summer job on a natural-gas drilling rig near Pinedale, Wyo. On a night shift, his crew was adding sections of drilling pipe to go deeper in the hole. The driller accidentally engaged the "breakout tongs," 500-pound jaws for grabbing pipes. Some of the crew said they heard "a loud bang" and a scream as the tongs slammed into Riedel, swept him upward, six feet off the rig floor and pinned him there, against steel.

The July 23, 2004, accident killed Riedel. More than 350 people attended the memorial service, overflowing Worland's Grace Lutheran Church.

The state Workers' Safety and Compensation Division, which investigates workplace accidents, found that on the night of the fatal accident, the driller and others in the crew were inexperienced, due to men often quitting the difficult work. Fatigue from 12-hour shifts was also a factor, and a control valve on the driller's panel was improperly installed, which made it easy for the driller to make the mistake with the tongs.

The safety agency—which goes by the nickname Wyoming OSHA, mimicking the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration—negotiated with the drilling company, Nabors Industries Ltd., over corrective actions, then fined the company $625. Outraged, Riedel's parents, Duane and Diana Riedel, went to the Worland newspaper, and the Associated Press picked up the story. Wyoming OSHA raised the fine to $1,875.

The penalty probably wasn't noticeable at Nabors: It's the world's largest drilling company, operating more than 600 rigs around the world and earning more than $1.4 billion in 2006. The Riedels say the company gave them $6,000, to help pay for Josh's funeral—and that's all.

"(Nabors) should've shut down that rig and replaced that valve," says Duane Riedel, who's made his career as a math teacher but put in one summer break working in the gas fields. "It's expensive to shut down a rig, but they should've done it."

From Louisiana to Alaska, oil and gas is an industry in a rush, spurred by a worldwide shortage and entranced by high prices and profits. The human impacts of the exploration boom are felt especially in the Interior West, where the summertime total of drilling rigs has soared since 2000, from 204 to 447, according to RigData, a company that keeps track. With that increase in drilling and related activities, the number of fatal accidents has also risen. At least 89 people have died since 2000, working in energy extraction in Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Montana and North Dakota, according to government records gathered in a six-month investigation by High Country News. Last year alone, 20 people died doing jobs directly related to drilling and servicing wells in the region.

Federal OSHA is the top overseer. It either handles each state's workplaces directly, or hands off the duty to state agencies. But the federal and state safety cops don't seem particularly tough. To begin with, they can't do many workplace inspections, because typically they have the same number of cops they had 20 years ago, straining to cover an explosion in the number of workplaces in the West. And when workers die, the safety cops levy fines that are so low, compared to the profits being reaped, that families often view the penalties as insulting and outrageous.

Other aspects of state laws also appear to be rigged against the accident victims and their families, making it all but impossible for them to sue, even in the face of apparently extraordinary management negligence. At times, the industry and the whole government system treat tenaciously loyal workers as if they were as disposable as a broken drill bit.

A single drilling site involves many companies and crews, including all the various Halliburtons that pass through to pump fluids to control drilling, the truckers, welders, other service providers that combine to get the oil and gas flowing initially and the maintenance companies that come back to the hole to keep it flowing. Multiply that by tens of thousands of wells across the region, roll in pipelines, refineries and processing plants, and you get some idea of the size of the industry in the Interior West.

All that machinery can hurt or kill from just about any angle. Workers get crushed by rig collapses, they fall off the maze of steel ledges, they get caught in spinning chains, winches and cables. On or off the rigs, they handle flammables, and sometimes they get fireballed. They get slammed by valves and pipes that explode under high pressure. They get hit by lightning, freeze to death and die of heat stroke, because the work takes place outside, and it goes on 24/7, 365 days a year, pretty much no matter what.

They also fall to their deaths for no good reason, as Kaylee and Bill Bryant of Evanston, Wyo., can attest.

"It's pretty rotten," says Kaylee Bryant, talking about what happened to one of her sons, Colton, who fell off a grated walkway on a natural-gas drilling rig near Pinedale, Wyo., in February 2006. He landed 26 feet below in the rig's steel-and-dirt cellar, suffering fatal head injuries.

Wyoming's workplace safety investigators found that where Colton Bryant fell, the walkway had no "adequate" railing (investigators did not elaborate on the inadequacy), and part of the walkway had no railing at all. The state agency fined the drilling company, Patterson-UTI Energy Inc., $7,031. "There should've been a railing where Colton was at," Kaylee says. "If there was a railing, he would've been saved."

Patterson-UTI is the world's second-biggest drilling company, with about 300 rigs operating in the U.S. and Canada. Forbes magazine calls it one of the 400 Best Big Companies in America. By one dark score, it is apparently the leading drilling company: At least 20 of its U.S. workers have died in on-the-job accidents since 2001; six of those deaths occurred in 2006.

A railing for the walkway from which Colton Bryant fell might've cost a thousand dollars. Patterson-UTI made a record profit the year he died—$673 million.

The industry's safety efforts include company staffers dedicated to training and bonuses for crews that have good safety records. Dozens of companies donated money or equipment to launch the Rocky Mountain Oil & Gas Training School in Casper, Wyo., in 2005; the state and federal governments also support the school. More than 800 men from 44 states have completed the school's weeklong course. But the school only contributes a stream into the region's pool of at least 4,000 drilling-rig workers.

And the industry has not reformed its structural problems. Those begin with standard 12-hour shifts, typically running seven-to-14 days in a row. Safety agencies frequently note long shifts and worker fatigue as accident factors. Old equipment is another factor. Many drilling rigs are more than 20 years old, built in the last big rush; they're constantly rebuilt and modified, but many still use primitive technology, such as naked, mechanically spun chains that screw together sections of pipe.

When accidents occur, safety agencies assess them differently, depending on the state. Federal OSHA runs Colorado, Montana and North Dakota workplaces; Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico run their own safety programs. And even among the states, accident statistics become apples and oranges, incomparable. Utah's agency investigates whenever one worker (or more) goes to a hospital, for instance, while Wyoming OSHA investigates an accident only if at least three workers are hospitalized.

When Wyoming OSHA finds safety violations in fatal accidents, and companies show they've taken corrective actions, fines are reduced, because the agency's main goal is to get companies to correct unsafe procedures. "Doing a fatality investigation, it's difficult to keep your feelings in check," says J.D. Danni, program manager of Wyoming OSHA. "The penalty is not associated with the death of that person. We try to emphasize that to the spouses and families (of the victims)."

But those spouses and families are often outraged by the seemingly paltry fines assessed in the wake of death in the oil and gas fields. A few examples from Wyoming, which produces the most energy, measured in total BTUs of oil, gas and coal, of any state:

• A piece of equipment snagged a basket where Harvey Montoya was perched and knocked him off; he fell to his death. The Wyoming OSHA report on the 2002 accident said that the rig's driller was isolated in a soundproof control room, and the intercom that connected him to the outside had been broken for five weeks, so he didn't hear the crew yelling at him to stop the hoisting that killed Montoya. OHSA's fine against Montoya's employer, Central Valley Tongs, was $10,000.

• During a night shift on Dec. 22, 2004, Phillip Lynn Pepper was on a platform nearly at the top of a tall rig. He leaned out to grab a hoisted pipe, lost his balance and fell 90 feet. He wasn't wearing a proper fall-protection lanyard because that rig didn't have a lanyard in the crow's nest; it had broken 13 days earlier, and the rig had operated without it. True Drilling got hit with the biggest fine in a Wyoming oil-and-gas accident in this decade, but it was only $19,250.

• It was Dec. 12, 2005, and a Wyoming rig had just lifted 373,000 pounds of drilling pipe from the "hole" when a large pulley at the top of the rig broke apart. A falling cable sliced into Doug Shymanski's back and killed him. The company, Cyclone Drilling Inc., said it had inspected the pulley regularly. But OSHA had an engineering professor examine pieces of the pulley, and he found it "beyond worn; it was extremely fatigued." The fine against Cyclone Drilling: $16,250.

The oil land gas industry regulates itself, really, by monetary pluses and minuses. Accidents raise costs, mainly insurance rates. On the other side of that ledger are the profits. Going faster reduces costs and increases profits, unless there's an accident. It's an ongoing balancing act, regularly tinged with blood.

"Many companies have safety policies, but guess what—if the work's not getting done, who's getting fired, regardless of the safety issues? (Sometimes) it's the managers (on each rig)," says Bob Schilling, who helped run two Wyoming rigs where men died falling from the derricks in 2001 and 2004. Bosses at various levels are "crunching their numbers," he says. "To get things done efficiently, fast, (some will) sidestep safety stuff."

Kim Floyd of the AFL-CIO has a harsh view of the industry's overall commitment to safety: "They treat employees like a commodity. Once one is gone, there's another standing to take his place."

D.J. Maser Jr. shares that opinion. In 1997, when he was 16, he got a part-time job at a welding and machine shop where the company had him degreasing a machine used to bend steel. He rubbed down the machine with "flash naphtha solvent" and tossed the dirty rags into a pile on the floor—all following bosses' orders, he says.

On the fifth day, two men were welding on machinery nearby, and the sparks ignited the rags and then Maser, when he tried to stamp out the fire. "I tried to drop-and-roll, which wasn't working on a concrete floor. So I ran outside to roll in the dirt," he said. "When that didn't work, I actually started to think of ways to kill myself, so that I didn't burn to death. There were flames shooting five to six feet off of me. (Then) somebody ran up with a fire extinguisher."

He almost died, with second-and-third-degree burns over 26 percent of his body. Surgeons put him through four rounds of grafting skin from his thighs onto the burns on his arms and hands. The grafts were incredibly painful, and then he went through 18 months of painful physical therapy.

D.J. Maser is invisible, as far as Wyoming OSHA is concerned. Because he was hurt but not killed in an accident that did not hospitalize at least three workers, he's not in the state's OSHA stats. But he illustrates huge flaws in another branch of the workplace safety system: workers' compensation insurance.

The states' workers compensation programs collect insurance premiums from companies and pay medical bills for injured workers, including Maser, as well as limited benefits to widows and young children who lose parents in accidents. But the workers comp programs typically provide companies almost total immunity from lawsuits. The reasoning is, without protection for employers, the economy would collapse in a lawyers' feeding frenzy over every workplace accident.

Federal law says young teens can't do the dangerous work that had been assigned to Maser, and his family sued. But state law contradicts the federal child-labor restrictions in some areas, and the Wyoming State Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that Maser's family couldn't use the federal law as a basis for suing the company for damages and negligence.

The machine-shop company where Maser worked, now called L & H Industrial Inc., has expanded to a global operation, with shops spread from South Africa to Canada, serving oil and gas and mining. Maser, whose arms and hands remain scarred from the burns, says, "The way they have the laws set up, it's just to protect Big Business' ass, and to keep the rich rich and the working man down."

Recently, while investigating an oilfield fatality, Wyoming OSHA safety cops observed a 17-year-old working in the field. They forwarded the tip to the state's Department of Labor, but an official there says nothing can be done about it.

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