It’s widely known that jobs in the oil and gas industry are dangerous. Many of the workplace hazards facing oil and gas workers stem from the nature of the job. The environment is particularly grueling. It includes long shifts, extreme weather conditions, and the regular use of heavy, dangerous equipment. It’s not surprising that there are a high number of injuries in the oil and gas sector.
But the dangers associated with oil and gas aren’t just attributable to the demands of the job. Unfortunately, this sector is prone to a set of hazards that point to a lack of accountability, a lack of oversight and, too often, a systematic failing of the safety culture among oil and gas businesses.
One of the strongest indicators that this industry fails its employees when it comes to safety is the overwhelming lack of information regarding worker injuries, which creates a shroud of mystery surrounding the details of so many injuries and fatalities in the oil and gas sector. In other words, what we don’t know is just as alarming as what we do know.
Before we look at why transparency is so scarce in the oil and gas industry, let’s look at the facts that we do have.
What We Know is Alarming
The oil and gas industry has never been known as a bastion of worker safety. In fact, quite the opposite is true. From 2000 to 2010, oil and gas workers were seven times more likely to die on the job than workers in other industries, per the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA lists the following reasons why these fatalities occur:
- Vehicle Accidents
- Struck-By/ Caught-In/ Caught-Between
- Explosions and Fires
- Confined Spaces
- Chemical Exposures.
After 2010, there was an oil boom in Texas. The next five years saw a tripling of oil production in the state, as reported by the Dallas Morning News. The boom was due, in large part, to hydraulic fracturing and the shale drilling process. Even though times were good for the oil companies, the situation continued down the same familiar path for workers. In 2014, for example, the fatal work injury rate was nearly five times that of all industries in the United States. The industry saw a 27 percent increase in workplace fatalities, totaling 142 deaths.
Then, as oil prices dropped, the industry once again fell on hard times, leaving companies with less revenue and prompting many smaller businesses to leave the fields entirely. From 2014 to 2015, oil production slid once more, and thousands of oil workers lost their jobs.
The numbers tell us that regardless of the ups and downs experienced by oil companies, the incredibly high rate of fatalities and injuries seem to stay pretty much the same. When workplace fatalities are five to seven times higher than in other industries, it points to a consistent problem, prompting safety advocates and workers alike to ask questions about why this industry is plagued with unsafe work environments. The answer might be a lack of oversight and accountability.
What We Don’t Know Might be Even Worse
There are many factors that contribute to the ambiguity surrounding workplace injury, illness and death in the oil and gas industry. Regulations regarding workplace safety are sorely lacking. Reporting injuries is often a task left up to the industry itself.
Some of the most important reporting on this issue comes from the Denver Post. While their four-part feature focuses partly on oil and gas worker injuries in Colorado, the problems reflect many of the same challenges we face in Texas. The Post also points out many of the problems existing in the oil and gas industry across the entire country. Here are some of their findings:
- There is no federal agency that exclusively oversees the oil and gas industry.
- The recommendations from OSHA that serve as the safety standards in the oil and gas sector were written by the American Petroleum Institute.
- Issues tied to worker privacy prevent the Bureau of Labor Statistics from releasing complete information concerning death among oil and gas workers.
- The industry is supposed to keep its own totals of workplace fatalities; the agencies who report the number of deaths in the industry often report conflicting numbers.
- Oil and gas companies seldom receive heavy fines for violations of workplace safety, especially when compared with fines in other industries.
Closer to home, the Houston Chronicle reported in 2014 that many Texas oilfield injuries go entirely unreported. Underreporting the number of injuries that occur in the workplace makes fines and citations less of a problem for employers. That being the case, one might think that agencies like OSHA would take up the mantle of workplace safety to ensure that companies are doing their due diligence for employees.
It’s true that ensuring the safety of workers is a responsibility that falls chiefly on OSHA, but the agency suffers from a lack of resources required to adequately inspect workplaces. As the AFL-CIO points, there are only around 1,800 state and federal regulators tasked with inspecting approximately 8 million workplaces, meaning that it would take federal inspectors 145 years to inspect each workplace in the United States only once.
Yet another problem with the current regulatory system is the fact that so many of the oil and gas workers who suffer serious and fatal injuries every year are not technically “employees” of the oil and gas companies. They are often considered subcontractors of smaller companies who sometimes adhere to a different set of protocols and safety standards, said the Denver Post. Doing business through subcontractors, as opposed to in-house, reduces overhead for large oil companies and reduces their liability should an employee suffer an injury or death on the job.
These factors play a big role in shaping the safety culture of an industry that experiences higher rates of injury and illness than almost every other industry in the United States. Many other sectors adhere to much tighter regulations and are subjected to more oversight than the oil and gas industry. Those sectors are still host to profitable businesses that manage to run successful operations where workers are much less likely to suffer an injury on the job.
The oil and gas industry shouldn’t get a free pass on workplace safety, yet many businesses in the sector fall short when it comes to taking care of their workers. We know all too well that these jobs are dangerous, but they are likely much more perilous than we realize.