New numbers out this week from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed the overall rate of fatal work injuries last year was about three out of every 100,000 full-time workers. But for workers in the oil and gas industry, who work long hours with a lot of dangerous equipment, it was more than five times higher.
“We’ve known for quite a few years that it’s a high hazard industry,” said Kyla Retzer, an epidemiologist with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health who focuses on safety and health in oil and gas extraction.
The BLS report said 142 people in oil and gas sector died last year from work-related injuries, an increase of 27 percent from the year before.
Retzer said well sites are dangerous places, with multiple companies taking heavy equipment down or putting it up. But she said the most fatalities are tied to transportation, particularly incidents where workers drive from one work site to another in light-duty vehicles. Some drive on unsafe rural roads with no seat belts. And they’re working long hours, so fatigue is a big issue.
“Every year there’s at least one or two incidents where a crew of one or two workers are driving together, and the driver falls asleep at the wheel, and there are multiple deaths,” she said.
One solution? Some oil field companies have installed monitors on vehicles to track how workers drive — whether they accelerate too fast, a sign of aggressive driving, or decelerate too quickly, a sign of distraction.
“They really can monitor everything that can go on in that vehicle,” said Kari Cutting, vice president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, a trade group. “And at the end of the day, your supervisor is sitting there with a record of your driving experience of the day.”
But Denver attorney Randal Kelly said another problem could be the culture of machismo among oil and gas workers. Low-skilled workers could, at one point, make $100,000 a year. Kelly said some keep quiet about unsafe conditions.
“Because if you don’t keep this job, how are you going to make even close to this with your skill set?” he said.
Retzer, the epidemiologist, will conduct a survey of 500 oil and gas workers in three states next year to learn more about impediments to safe practices.
Oil prices are down, and there are far fewer workers in the oil patch these days. But Retzer said that could work to her advantage. She said oil field companies and workers may have more time to work with her and think about safety.