October 16, 2012 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 0Comment

For some reason the news story stuck in my memory.  The headline read:

“Oil rig explosion near Marshall in north central Oklahoma was caused by blowout, company attorney said.” 

Maybe it was because I’d been reading so many stories about the natural gas boom, that a news story about an oil rig caught my attention.  It happened January 20, 2012 at the Logan Rig #7, operated by El Dorado Drilling, an affiliate of Kirkpatrick Oil.  Maybe it was the news headline’s word “blowout” which stirred memories of the Deepwater Horizon Maconda rig’s infamous “blowout preventers.”  Maybe it was the lead sentence which noted that four workers had been injured in the blast.  It was probably all of those, but this remark by the oil well operator’s attorney is what really stuck in my head:

“It’s a dangerous job and unfortunately these types of things happen…”

Sorry sir, rarely do things just happen.

When catastrophic incidents occur and investigators put the pieces together, we learn that such events can almost always be prevented.  Sometimes there are equipment failures, but often times that doesn’t tell the whole story.  If asked, workers will explain how routine maintenance was put off, standard operating procedures were ignored,  and crews were rushed to meet production goals or deadlines.  Unfortunately, it’s only when major workplace catastrophes are the subject of comprehensive external investigations—such as the March 2005 BP Texas City disaster (here), the 2007 Excel Energy fire (here) or the 2010 Upper Big Branch disaster (here) — that these back-story causes of catastrophic events are revealed.

The vast majority of worker fatalities or incidents that cause injured workers to be admitted to a hospital are not probed thoroughly by independent investigators.  OSHA, for example, will typically conduct a post-incident inspection but its compliance officers pay attention primarily to violations of OSHA standards.  Federal OSHA does not use these inspections as an opportunity to identify factors that may have contributed or caused the violation, such as the number of hours worked by the crews, how much say workers had in setting production goals or choosing equipment, or a company’s incentive program for fast work.  Such information, if collected, could help to characterize risk factors for serious injury and deaths, and recommend ways to address them.

Following the January 20, 2012 blowout at the Logan Rig #7, OSHA officials conducted an inspection on January 23 and held a closing conference that same day.  The agency issued a citation in July for three serious violations and proposed a penalty of $12,600.  Two of the violations fell under OSHA’s general duty clause (Section 5(a)(1)) for failing to provide a workplace free of recognized hazards that caused serious harm.  The other serious violation related to OSHA’s standard requiring employees being trained in the proper use of fire-resistant clothing.  The citation suggested that

  1. the employer was not complying with the oil and gas industry’s consensus standard for safe well drilling, specifically “American Petroleum Institute Recommended Practice 54,” and
  2. there were open-flame heaters being used on the rig floor and under its substructue which created a volatile fire and explosion hazard.

El Dorado Drilling and OSHA reached an informal settlement in which the serious violation related to fire-resistant clothing was classified as other-than-serious, and the $12,600 proposed penalty was reduced to $6,700.  In exchange for the substantial penalty reduction, the employer merely agreed to:

“continue to improve its safety and health system utilizing OSHA’s State Consultation Program, insurance carrier(s), and/or other safety and health consultation.”

The settlement agreement does not stipulate that OSHA will be provided a copy of the safety consultant’s report or evidence that El Dorado Drilling implemented the consultant’s recommendations.  The best we can hope is that a quality safety consultant will help the company realize that explosions, fires and other catastrophic incidents don’t just happen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.