Worker deaths in the oil and gas production industry reached a record high last year, according to new, preliminary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of fatalities in the oil and gas extraction category totaled 138 in 2012.
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from 2003 to 2010, the oil and gas extraction industry, onshore and offshore combined, had a collective fatality rate seven times higher than that of all US workers – 27.1 compared to 3.8 deaths per 100,000 workers. During that time, all but one of 128 oil and gas industry workplace deaths occurred in the Gulf of Mexico.
This month, the Energy Information Administration reported that employment in the oil and natural gas industry increased by 40 percent from the beginning of 2007 though the end of 2012, as production increased (compared to one percent for the total private sector during the same period). But, as the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon disaster highlights, the industry has a reputation for cutting corners and a lack of concern for safety.
In response to the increase in oil and gas workplace deaths, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez issued a statement saying, “We can and must do better. Job gains in oil and gas construction have come with more fatalities, and that is unacceptable.”
The oil and gas industry has a long history of putting profits before safety. Instances like BP’s Texas City Refinery explosion, which killed 15 workers and injured 170, and their 2010 oil spill that killed 11 workers, decreased the quality of life for Gulf Coast residents of five states, and poisoned countless marine life are well-known, severe cases, but are certainly not anomalies.
Since 2009, for example, at least 11 oilfield employees have lost their lives working for drilling companies in the Eagle Ford Shale counties in Southern Texas. According to a report by mySA, those employees “suffered horrific deaths that could have been prevented, according to OSHA investigations.”
Last year, drilling permits in the Eagle Ford Shale region surged to over 4,100. OSHA has completed 35 fatality investigations in Texas for the oil and gas industry since 2009, but the report states that the total number of worker deaths is likely higher due to the fact that OSHA’s recent investigations are not available to the public.
MySA reports that 40 oil and gas workers were killed in transportation accidents on public roads in Texas from 2009 to 2011; however, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not investigate transportation accidents on public roads.
According to Michael Rivera, area director for OSHA’s Corpus Christi office, many employers frequently cut safety corners. “There are those who kind of hurry, maybe take a shortcut. Not to hurt or kill anybody. But time is money, right?” Rivera told mySA.
OSHA has been known to cut fines for safety violations. Initial fines against all the companies responsible for the 11 Eagle Ford Shale fatalities amounted to an average of $10,900 per worker death. OSHA eventually cut the penalties by nearly 45 percent, to $6,100. But you can’t put a price on life, and certainly, to many large corporations like oil and gas companies, fines are unsubstantial in relation to revenue.
“Is it a deterrent?” Rivera asked, referring to OSHA-imposed fines for safety violations. “I would say, if the penalty is not a deterrent, sometimes the violations themselves could be a deterrent to a lot of employers,” he told mySA.
Alisha is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire. Follow her on Twitter @childoftheearth.