At least 16 drilling industry workers died in fires, explosions last year

By Mike Soraghan | 01/12/2015 08:37 AM EST

It was a few minutes before 8 on a cool spring morning at an oil well in West Texas last year when truck driver Roberto Magdaleno walked over to the site supervisor to get some papers signed.

At that moment, a sand separator at the well site exploded, spraying shrapnel more than 1,400 feet, according to Occupational Safety and Health Administration officials who investigated the April 30, 2014, explosion outside Orla, Texas.

Magdaleno, 41, and the site supervisor, 46-year-old Amos Ortega, were both killed. Nine others were injured.

They were among at least 16 oil and gas workers killed in fires and explosions in 2014, according to a count compiled by EnergyWire, adding to the industry’s unusually high number of such deaths.

Oil and gas production employs less than 1 percent of the U.S. workforce, but in the past five years it has had more than 10 percent of all workplace fatalities from fires and explosions. An EnergyWire review of federal labor statistics last year found it has more deaths from fires and explosions than any other private industry.

In 2013, there were 13 deaths in the industry from fires and explosions, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That was down from 23 the previous year but more than any other private industry.

The 16 deaths last year can’t be accurately compared with the bureau figure because the agency uses its own methodology and keeps confidential the names and companies of the fatalities in its annual count.

The industry’s high death rate shows the need for more regulation, according to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an independent agency charged with investigating industrial accidents.

CSB has advocated a proposal at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to lift the drilling exemption from "process safety management" (PSM) rules intended to prevent industrial explosions.

"High rates of worker injuries and fatalities within this sector suggest that PSM requirements are urgently needed," the agency said in comments sent under the signature of Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso.

But industry leaders oppose greater regulation and reject the idea that their business has a significant problem with fires and explosions.

"There is little performance data showing there is a safety problem at these facilities," the American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s biggest lobbying group, wrote last year in an OSHA filing opposing the PSM change. "The risk level is not high."

The best-known fatal explosion in drilling last year was at a Chevron Corp. well in southwest Pennsylvania (EnergyWire, Aug. 8, 2014). The company earned national derision after the Feb. 11 fire for distributing coupons for free pizza to locals. Many residents, though, said they appreciated the gesture. OSHA decided against levying fines against any of the companies involved.

The first fatal explosion was in January: Daniel Rice, 33, was killed in Knoxville, Ark., when a truck tank of drilling wastewater exploded. Workers had been thawing valves on the tank with a propane torch.

The most recent was Dec. 18 near Coalgate, Okla. Two men, Gary Keenen, 26, of Ada and Kelsey Bellah, 27, of Tulsa, were killed when the rig they were working on exploded. Keenan’s brother, a member of the crew, told the Ada (Okla.) News that he believed a space heater at the site ignited oil-based drilling mud.

The only "industry" to have more fire and explosion fatalities than oil and gas in 2013 was firefighting, which had 42. That was a tenfold increase from 2012, driven by several large-scale disasters such as the Yarnell Hill wildfires in Arizona that killed 19 firefighters.