April 11, 2007 The Pump Handle 0Comment

If you only read one article on the issue of occupational health and safety this week, make it Ray Ring’s “Disposable Workers of the Oil and Gas Fields,” published last week in High Country News. “The core of the story can be classified as straightforward investigative coup,” editor John Mecklin explains in an accompanying piece . “In six months of amassing documents, scouring lawsuits and prodding databases, Ring was able to map out the general scope of a little-noticed reality: Since the start of the second Bush presidency, as skyrocketing energy prices drove a wild increase in oil and gas drilling across the Interior West, the number of oil and gas workers killed in and around drill rigs also rose relentlessly.”

The story Ring tells is all too familiar: time pressures, old equipment, and exhausting work schedules are common. Safety agencies lack resources to monitor workplaces, and fines for violations — even when workers have died or been severely injured — are small. State laws make the companies virtually immune to lawsuits from victims or their families.

“As with the drilling boom, the boom in worker death played out in isolated rural landscapes most of America never sees, and so the dead have been largely invisible, three paragraphs of filler material in small-town newspapers,” Mecklin explains. By contrast, Ring creates vivid portraits of the workers and family members whose lives have been irreversibly altered by accidents in the oil and gas fields.

Ring’s work brings to mind that of another reporter who decided to investigate a string of workplace accidents in an region and an industry that are often neglected in national news.

Ken Ward Jr. recently received a medal from the Investigative Reporters and Editors for his series “Beyond Sago” on coal mine safety in West Virginia and other coal mining states. In a Q&A with Leann Frola published in Poynter Online last week, Ward shared details about the work that went into his award-winning stories.

In other news:

Ten workers who spend years working in asbestos-filled tunnels under the U.S. Capitol have been reassigned — to a power plant that’s in the midst of a seven-month asbestos removal (Washington Post).

The National Mining Association has filed a lawsuit to force withdrawal of a federal advisory telling mine operators to have four days of emergency oxygen on hand in case miners get trapped underground (Scripps News).

Kentucky Governor Ernie Fletcher signed the “Boni Bill” into law. The bill, prompted by the killing of social worker Boni Frederick, will provide $6 million to hire more social workers, improve security at local offices and create secure sites where parents can visit children removed because of abuse or neglect (Louisville Courier-Journal).

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