One of the most grueling jobs and least-compensated industries in the nation is that of oil-field workers. Rain or shine, hot or cold, oil-field workers are out there risking their lives every day to supply the American public with gas to fuel their daily lives. Communities where oil is extracted have gotten used to losing people. It is just the nature of working for the oil companies — but does it have to be?
In November 2014, Matt Smith was just one of many to lose his life in a line explosion. Two of his co-workers were severely injured. According to federal statistics, since 2003 there have been over fifty deaths caused in oil and gas fields across just the state of Colorado.
It isn’t that the accidents are inherent in the oil and gas industry; they were mostly due to negligence and shortfalls at the corporate level, where executives make cuts to safety to maximize profit. Even when accidents do happen, there are no consequences for those who looked the other way.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors fined Halliburton $7,000 dollars in the incident — nothing but a drop in the bucket for a multi-billion dollar corporation. Initially, they even fought that small amount, but decided just to give in.
According to Halliburton, the worksite operator failed to file the required report with gas and oil officials. The problem is that typically, even when they are notified, the report barely ever makes it up the chain of command to OSHA as it is supposed to.
Bound by workers’ compensation stipulations, the family is not allowed to sue for punitive damages, which leaves them with very little recourse or compensation for the loss of their loved one. In the state of Colorado, it is a dirty little secret that it’s a risky job and there are very few controls related to the operation of oil and gas workers or their environment.
Officials are more stringent on construction workers than they are on oil and gas companies. Why? The main reason for the lack of regulation is that gas and oil are far more profitable to the Colorado state economy than any other industry.
The companies who run the oil and gas production maintain that they understand the risks that a worker is subjected to each day when they man their post, and they have very specific and thorough education and procedures in place to try to minimize accidents. But there will always be accidents — it’s just the nature of the industry. In maintaining that when they find vulnerabilities or ways to make the workplace environment safer, they are working tirelessly to change operations and to minimize risk.
The biggest problem is that if the companies don’t comply or put more money toward safety regulations or education, there are literally no consequences. According to an oilfield accident lawyer, when wrongdoing does happen, the fines that are imposed upon them are barely a deterrent to ensuring that it doesn’t happen again. When it costs millions to update technology or throw money into more safety, it makes more economic sense for them to take the $7,000 hit as they did in Smith’s case than for them to put their profits into protecting workers.
Mining is another industry that comes with extremely high inherent risks. That is why there is an entire regulatory agency that oversees mining operations. The same does not apply to the oil and gas industry, and many workers and workers’ families are asking why.
The only standard of care that oil and gas corporations are obligated to follow are OSHA rules, but there is rarely anyone manning the ship and companies are left on their own to ensure that they are being compliant and regulating with the mandatory safety measures.
But as the fatalities begin to mount and there doesn’t seem to be much attention being paid to increase safety — even in the new age of technology — many are calling for a change within the industry so that people aren’t unwittingly and unnecessarily putting themselves in harm’s way each time they enter the workplace.
Even more shocking is the fact that many of the accidents and incidents that happen on the field aren’t even reported to authorities. As if the oil and gas company has a free pass, it seems like their profits reign over workers’ safety; at some point, enough has to be enough. Hopefully, if someone can uncover what the consumer has been left in the dark about over the past several decades, things can change and oil and gas companies will be held accountable for the injuries and damages to their employees. That might lead to increasing their level of safety and putting workers before profits going forward.