Hispanic workers in the U.S. oil and gas industry bear a disproportionate share of workplace injuries, as gaps in health insurance and language issues put the workforce in greater danger of catastrophic accidents.
In 2011, the most recent year for which final Bureau of Labor Statistics data are available, Hispanic oil and gas extraction workers suffered more than a quarter of the industry's on-the-job injuries. But they made up just 7.2 percent of the extraction workforce. Labor experts and organizations monitoring the Hispanic workforce say those statistics most likely hold true today, as tough workplace conditions for Hispanics persist under the pressure to expand oil and gas production.
Of the nation's 53 million Hispanic residents, Census Bureau data show that 29 percent are uninsured, meaning Hispanics are less likely to carry medical coverage than any other racial or ethnic group.
In the case of one former Texas rig hand whom EnergyWire interviewed, employer-provided health insurance didn't kick in until he had spent six months on the job. During that period, the Mexican immigrant, who asked not to be identified because many of his family members still work for his former employer, felt his health was in jeopardy. He was required to perform tasks such as operating a forklift without adequate training.
When the former rig worker and his fellow crew members did receive training, it was in English, unless the trainer happened to speak Spanish. This worker has spoken English since he moved to the United States in the mid-'90s, but some of his co-workers were less fluent. Still, he said many of those workers never asked for an interpreter or translator when they thought they needed one.
"If somebody didn't know English or something, they would just not say anything," he said.
What training they did receive -- and comprehend -- was of little value when management pressed drilling companies to complete the jobs more quickly, according to sources inside and outside the industry.
From the vantage point of the former rig hand, the safety culture breaks down quickly.
The crew "would just forget about the training and work in unsafe ways to get things done," the former oil worker said. "There was just a pressure from the [supervisors] and the company men to tell people just to get things moving again."
He worked in oil for two years before deciding to leave the industry because of safety concerns.
For all workers, fear of termination can be a powerful incentive not to make waves at work. For workers who crossed the U.S. border illegally, fear of deportation is an added layer of concern.
Safety for one and all
When studying safety issues in its industry, the American Petroleum Institute says it looks at all workers, not just a subset of the workforce.
API singled out Hispanic workers in an employment outlook published last year. The November 2012 IHS Inc. study conducted on behalf of the oil and gas industry group found that in a base-line growth scenario, Hispanics could hold 26 percent of 227,000 new energy jobs anticipated by 2020.
Most minority workers will find work in risky occupations, such as equipment operator, roustabout and truck driver, the report says. Few will carry professional titles like petroleum engineer.
Workplace safety training is largely left up to individual companies, which might not have bilingual supervisors and instructors available, said Kenny Jordan, executive director of the Association of Energy Service Companies.
Jordan is involved in the National Service, Transmission, Exploration & Production Safety (STEPS) Network, a volunteer organization that aims to reduce injuries and deaths in the energy business. Although oil executives and safety trainers know there is a large population of bilingual energy workers, and a portion that speaks only Spanish, STEPS has put no particular focus on Spanish-language training aside from a few bilingual instruction videos.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration reports to the Mexican consulate any death of a person with a Mexican surname, said OSHA Oklahoma City Director David Bates.
This is done for the purpose of informing the workers' families, he said.
When Dan Neal set out to educate workers on their rights, he didn't realize he'd be speaking to a Hispanic audience.
But when he held his first know-your-rights workshop through Wyoming's Equality State Policy Center last year, 25 of the 40 attendees were Hispanic.
Neal teaches a three-step protocol. Report injuries, he says, and make sure the employer files the claim. If the employer fails to file the claim, Neal instructs workers to file it themselves. If workers don't take action on their own behalf, he says, they run the risk of missing reporting deadlines and losing out on compensation.
In speaking with energy workers, Neal has heard reports of companies urging employees not to report injuries. In exchange, those workers are offered full pay during their recovery leave. Later, the workers are forced out of their jobs.
"We don't think this is common practice in the industry, but we have talked to people that this has happened to," Neal said.
The first workshop lasted two hours, "and it wasn't enough time," Neal said. He is now working to schedule a third know-your-rights seminar. The second, held in June, was delivered in Spanish.
All the questions about workplace rights "tells me that people feel like they're not always being treated fairly or in a straightforward way," he said.
Tom O'Connor, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH), urged in a paper that safety materials and training sessions reach people at a variety of literacy levels and technical backgrounds.
"The rapidly growing Spanish-speaking workforce in the U.S. is by no means monolithic and varies significantly by region," he said in the report published just ahead of a 10-year U.S. drilling boom.
COSH's network -- including Neal's Equality State Policy Center -- often ends up targeting Spanish-speaking workers as part of its mission to reach vulnerable workforce populations.
"There's just so much pressure to produce and to produce quickly that that affects everybody," O'Connor said, "but the immigrant worker population that is less likely to speak up for their rights may be more likely to go along with shortcuts on safety."
A fear of being fired
Hispanics often sign up for jobs through industry contractors. Those positions provide a job but less security.
Temporary workers are less likely to get adequate safety training than full-time employees, said sources interviewed for this story. The lack of job security in contract employment can make workers feel they can't take the initiative to say no to dangerous work.
"When an employer doesn't make an investment in you, you don't feel like you can advocate for yourself," said Katherine McNamara, an industrial hygienist with the University of California, Los Angeles' Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program.
Some oil refinery workers are represented by United Steelworkers (USW), which affords certain workplace protections. That's rarely the case for rig workers, and it goes double for contractors working on various pieces of a project.
"Contract employees for a couple of reasons often don't have the ability to effectively say, 'Well, this work is unsafe.' Sometimes they don't have anyone to represent them. If they raise safety issues, they wind up getting ousted," said David Campbell, secretary-treasurer for USW Local 675 in Carson, Calif..
Campbell says he remembers a time when "Mexicans" -- by which he meant any Hispanic worker, Mexican in origin or not -- weren't allowed to do any work other than hard labor. He said that's still a holdover in the oil and gas industry, leaving many Hispanic workers, especially those who were born outside the United States, in lower-level positions rather than professional posts. Entry-level work in the oil and gas business is often contracted on a job-by-job basis. Stability depends on maintaining good relationships with the operator, which can mean staying mum on safety concerns, Campbell said.
"The process [of contracting out work] itself tends to mean that the employee is always going to be concerned about job security," he said.
In production-based industries like coal and oil, companies sometimes post crew statistics to foster a sense of competition, said Celeste Monforton, public health consultant and a lecturer at George Washington University.
Employers often blame workers for failing to follow proper procedures, she said, but companies should look harder at whether pressure to produce encourages workers to follow rules.
Under ideal circumstances, workers might say, "Yeah, we're the best crew, but in addition to making our numbers, we also replaced three widgets that were not properly maintained," Monforton said. "Ultimately, those hazards are the things that cause the injury."