Drilling's worker safety record bodes ill for public health

Worker safety is perhaps the only place where the oil and gas industry's safety record can be lined up next to other industries and compared.

It's gotten better, but with a fatality rate that topped coal mining's in 2012, drilling stacks up badly.

Public health and worker safety experts say that's a bad sign for people living amid frack tanks, rigs and truck traffic that come with the country's drilling boom.

"If managers are saying we don't have time for a safety meeting, they're likely to say the same thing about controls to keep environmental violations from happening," said Adam Finkel, a former Occupational Safety and Health Administration official now in academia.

A research paper from the Colorado School of Public Health earlier this year observed that the explosions and chemical releases that kill and injure workers also jeopardize those who live and work nearby, but in different ways. Workers are closer and exposed to higher concentrations of toxic chemicals at well sites. But the people who live nearby can be exposed around the clock for years.


"If you live there, you've got the opportunity for long-term cumulative exposure," said professor John Adgate of the Colorado School of Public Health, co-author of the paper. "The longer exposure duration means the cumulative effect may be substantial."

The oil and gas industry's fatality rate in the past 10 years ranges from bad to very bad. But there were early signs of a sharp improvement in 2013, as rampant growth settled.

From 2003 to 2010, according to the Labor Department, 823 oil and gas extraction workers were killed on the job -- a fatality rate seven times greater than the rate for all industries.

The 2012 fatality rate for oil and gas extraction was a record 24.2 deaths per 100,000 workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (EnergyWire, Aug. 23, 2013). That was more than double the rate of construction worker deaths, higher than coal mining and even above that of the notoriously dangerous agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting sector.

The pace of fatal accidents slowed in 2013, even as employment went up. But BLS did not generate a 2013 fatality rate for oil and gas. It was certainly lower, but it's not clear by how much. The fatality rate for the mining sector, which includes drilling, dropped from 15.9 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2012 to 12.2. That is substantially higher than construction and nearly four times higher than the all-industry rate.

"It's still a long way to go, but we're headed in the right direction," said R. Dean Wingo, who retired in January 2013 as assistant regional administrator in the Dallas office of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. "They don't like this black eye for the fatalities they've had."

Despite the statistics, industry leaders say oil and gas wells are safe for the people who work on them and those who live near them.

"We take seriously our responsibility to produce oil and natural gas in a safe and reliable way that protects our workforce and protects the environment at the same time," Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute (API), the industry's largest trade group, said in a 2013 speech in Washington, D.C.

But the view from closer up can be less rosy.

"It's a highly hazardous industry," said Dennis Schmitz, a safety trainer with 15 years of experience in the oil field and chairman of the MonDaks Safety Network, a group of safety officials from companies drilling in the Bakken Shale. "We don't have a very good safety record."

Asked more recently about the industry's safety record, API spokesman Brian Straessle said, "Folks in the oil and natural gas industry care deeply about the health and safety of our colleagues and employees because safety is a core value."

Linking site safety with public health

Some worker safety experts reject the idea of linking worker exposure to public health and the environment. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, for example, has specifically rejected any efforts to link the results of its studies of toxic vapors at work sites to health effects on those who live nearby.

"I think there are definitely people out there that would like to say, 'Oh, how does it relate to risk for public health?'" said NIOSH researcher Eric Esswein, who led the study. "Well, it doesn't, because that's not the research we do."

Adgate, who is chairman of the Colorado school's Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, said public health experts and worker safety experts often contain themselves in their own "silos."

But Adgate notes that studies of workplace exposure have often served as a starting point for setting pollution limits for the general population.

"This has been an issue as long as I have been in this field -- how you relate occupational standards to community air pollution standards," he said.

Others have found correlation between environmental and worker safety records at companies.

Finkel, who was OSHA's administrator for the Rocky Mountain region until 2003 and now teaches at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, built a model showing that companies with a lot of environmental violations were at higher risk for workplace safety violations. Finkel said the theory can work both ways.

On average, OSHA found workplace conditions more than five times more severe at the environmental "problem sites" than at sites U.S. EPA did not see fit to inspect.

The model also incorporated data on violations of fair wages and other rules. He and his colleagues are also working to incorporate other factors, such as a company's credit scores, debt and ownership changes.

Asked whether worker safety was a valid means of comparing oil and gas to other industries, Independent Petroleum Association of America spokesman Jeff Eshelman said it is the "only comparison of industries' safety record" with which he was familiar.

The clearest example of a danger to both production workers and well site neighbors may be hydrogen sulfide, often called "sour gas." It's a well-known killer in the oil field, and complaints are increasing as the country's drilling boom drives into populated areas (EnergyWire, Oct. 21).

Sour gas poisoning has killed at least five oil and gas workers since the beginning of 2013. One of those was in North Dakota, where oil from the Bakken Shale is known for being exceptionally "sweet," or low in hydrogen sulfide.

But, as with other forms of oil field pollution, health experts say they grapple with a lack of solid information on the threat.

Even though it's a lethal hazard that's been a concern for decades in the oil field, Adgate said there isn't much scientific or medical literature about hydrogen sulfide's effect on workers or communities.

"There is remarkably little published data," Adgate said.

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