Image: Oil workers
Lm Otero  /  AP
The number of people laboring in the nation's oil and gas fields has been soaring as part of a drilling boom that began in 2000-01, but that alone does not appear to explain the rising death toll.
updated 9/10/2008 4:52:32 PM ET 2008-09-10T20:52:32

Less than two months into the job in the oil fields of West Texas, Brandon Garrett was sliced in half by a motorized spool of steel cable as he and other roughnecks struggled to get a drilling rig up and running.

Garrett's grisly end illustrates yet another soaring cost of America's unquenchable thirst for energy: Deaths among those working the nation's oil and gas fields have risen at an alarming rate, The Associated Press has found.

At least 598 workers died on the job between 2002 and 2007, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. During that period, the number of deaths per year rose by around 70 percent, from 72 victims in 2002 to 125 in 2006 and a preliminary count of 120 in 2007.

The number of people laboring in the nation's oil and gas fields has been soaring as part of a drilling boom that began in 2000-01, but that alone does not appear to explain the rising death toll, since the fatality rate — that is, the number killed relative to the number of workers — also climbed during the first half of the decade.

Many of those deaths have happened in Texas, the nation's largest producer of crude oil and natural gas.

Experts blame several factors for pushing the toll ever higher in an industry long considered one of the most dangerous in the nation. Among them:

  • A dramatic increase in drilling, spurred by record-breaking oil and natural gas prices. The number of workers in oil and gas jobs shot up from 290,000 in 2002 to 428,000 in 2007. In July 2002, 740 land-based oil and gas rigs were operating in the United States; today, there are about 2,000.
  • An influx of new workers hired to operate all those rigs. Many of the newcomers are young, inexperienced and speak little English.
  • A high-pressure environment where workplace safety lapses are common. Government agencies responsible for enforcing the rules rarely dole out tough penalties.
  • Rampant drug and alcohol use among workers, some of whom turn to methamphetamine to get through 12-hour shifts and labor up to 14 days in a row.

Workers at drilling sites are surrounded by heavy machinery that can kill or maim in an instant. About half the workers who die are struck by equipment or are killed in motor vehicle accidents. Others fall from catwalks, are crushed by falling loads, burned in explosions or become tangled in chains and cables.

"This is a very, very hazardous industry with a very high rate of injuries and fatalities," said Peg Seminario, director of safety and health for the AFL-CIO. "Safety and health problems are not getting the attention they need. With the growing demand for oil and petroleum products, the production pressures are going to increase and the safety and health problems are going to get worse."

Many experienced oil field workers left the industry in the mid-1980s during the oil bust, when a barrel sold for less than $10. Now, with prices over $100 a barrel, many drilling companies are hiring workers with little or no experience.

"A lot of the rig crews are made up of people who were working at Wal-Mart yesterday. Literally," said Mark Altom of the Woodard, Okla.-based Energy Training Council, a nonprofit organization whose programs are recognized by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Kenny Jordan, executive director of the Association of Energy Service Companies, made up of 750 member companies that service oil wells, said that while even one death is too many, oil field workers are on the job far more hours than before, and that translates into increased chances of injury or death.

He said companies are spending more money to train workers to do their jobs more safely, adding, "I think most people in our industry are cognizant and they have the best interest of their employees in mind."

Garrett's mother, Darlene Murrell, said she believes her son would still be alive had he received more thorough training and better supervision after Patterson-UTI Energy hired him as a rig crew floor hand, a job that might have paid $50,000 a year with overtime.

"I hate to think that someone else is going to have to go through the same thing that I went through," she said.

Garrett, 23, came to the West Texas oil fields with hopes of landing a good-paying job to help provide for his 4-year-old daughter.

On Easter Sunday 2007, the day he died, he was helping four other crew members repair a plugged drill bit on a rig about 70 miles northeast of Lubbock in the Texas Panhandle. A supervisor split the men into two groups performing different procedures to get the rig back in operation more quickly, according to OSHA reports.

Garrett was standing on top of a spool when another crew member accidentally activated it. Garrett was pulled into the machine. The cable cut his torso in half.

"Instead of doing one job at a time, both jobs were done simultaneously, resulting in a fatal accident," an OSHA inspector determined. He also noted that Garrett was doing a job he was not regularly assigned to do.

The agency cited Patterson-UTI for four safety violations, including two that were identical to those it had been issued for three other deaths a year earlier.

OSHA ordered the company to pay about $23,000 for violations related to Garrett's death. But after negotiations, regulators agreed to drop one violation and reduce the fines by half.

At least 20 Patterson-UTI employees have died on the job between 2002 and 2007, according to an AP computer analysis of OSHA data. No other oil and gas company has had more than five fatal accidents during that span.

Based in Snyder, Texas, Patterson-UTI is the nation's second-largest oil and gas drilling company. Mark Siegel, its chairman, told the AP the company has stepped up efforts to keep its employees safe.

Over the past three years, Patterson has spent about $1.5 billion to overhaul its safety training and replace older, more dangerous equipment, he said. Early indications suggest the investment is paying off in fewer accidents, the company and OSHA agree.

"What we found was employees in the field were in effect putting themselves in positions of risk, and then sometimes unfortunate accidents occurred," Siegel said.

A report issued in April by the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee described Patterson-UTI as one of the nation's worst violators of workplace safety laws. The report, titled "Discounting Death: OSHA's Failure to Punish Safety Violations That Kill Workers," concluded the agency's enforcement actions amounted to a "slap on the wrist" for the company's "unspeakable toll" on Texas workers.

Devoting an entire section to Patterson-UTI and 13 employees, including Garrett, who died in Texas rig accidents between November 2003 and April 2007, the report said the agency fined the company $432,000 for violations related to the deaths. But it later forgave all but $115,000 of the fines.

"OSHA's attempts to stop Patterson from gambling with workers' lives are a study in weakness," the report said.

OSHA officials declined to respond specifically to criticisms in the Senate report.

The fatality rate for oil and gas workers in the U.S. between 2002 and 2007 was more than 29 deaths per 100,000 workers, or about seven times the average for all occupations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

During that period, the rate climbed from about 25 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2002, peaking at more than 32 in 2006 before falling back to about 28 in 2007.

No one knows how many deaths and injuries have resulted from drug use by rig crews. But there is little doubt it is a factor, according to the Energy Training Council's Altom. In some places, methamphetamine use is so prevalent it is difficult to keep crews together, especially at companies that require periodic drug tests.

In Wyoming, two rig workers who died within a year of one another each had methamphetamine and marijuana in their systems, according to state officials. One lost his balance and fell 90 feet; the other was sliced by a steel cable. Both had worked in the industry for more than 20 years.

Sublette Sheriff Wayne Bardin said drug-related arrests in his Wyoming county quadrupled in recent years. The bulk of those arrested, he said, work for oil and gas companies.

Many put in 84-hour work weeks — two weeks on, and two off — on top of long commutes to and from the oil fields. Some use methamphetamine.

"They say it just keeps them awake longer," Bardin said.

Darlene Murrell said she worries about other young men heading to the oil fields in search of a good paycheck, and has some motherly advice: "It's too dangerous. Do something a little safer."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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