Oil and gas leaders seek to stem deaths on the job

Unlike Wyoming’s coal mining industry, oil and gas companies work without borders and they do it without a clear set of safety ground-rules or certifications that are transferable from one drilling location to the next.

EnCana Oil & Gas USA and BP America’s Rockies division, for example, each require contract workers to go through their own corporate training — or safety orientation — programs. Despite similarities in the programs, BP’s certificate won’t get a contractor on an EnCana site, and vice-versa.

For small contractors, the cost of sending their employees to Pinedale for one program, then to Wamsutter for another, adds up fast. The problem is multiplied by dozens more operators who work with thousands of contract companies in the Rockies.

Adding to the confusion and difficulty is the notion that each operator enforces safety policies to varying degrees.

“When I see a competitor on the same location and I know they haven’t paid for the same training, it gets a little frustrating,” said a safety manager who didn’t give his name.

Dozens of safety professionals gathered Wednesday in Rock Springs for a meeting of the Wyoming Oil and Gas Industry Safety Alliance (WOGISA). The group formed in 2010 after a state-level task force attempted to find out why Wyoming’s workplace fatality rate continually ranked worst or second-worst in the nation.

Vehicle accidents are the largest single contributor to Wyoming’s workplace fatalities, according to Timothy Ryan, Wyoming’s occupational epidemiologist.

Several hundred companies have signed on to the WOGISA effort, and in June the group formally penned a voluntary “alliance” with the Wyoming Occupational Safety and Health Administration. WOGISA leaders say they want to establish a “best practices” handbook, and try to standardize basic safety requirements and share training resources — particularly with those small companies that cannot afford training for their employees.

The group is making headway on those concepts, according to its leaders. Beyond that, exactly what WOGISA can and should do to help stem serious injuries and fatalities in the industry isn’t clear to it’s own members. Attendees in Rock Springs complained that a company can have a seatbelt policy, but that doesn’t mean all of their employees will wear seatbelts every time they’re in a vehicle.

“You can build all the policies you want, but if you don’t hold employees accountable for their actions,” the policies have little effect, said Denny Gladwin of Halliburton Services.

That same notion is the reason Wyoming lawmakers have declined to enact a primary seatbelt law for several years running. Leaders in the state insist that Wyomingites like their independence and don’t like government telling them what to do — and that attitude extends to the oil and gas industry. It’ the same reason the legislature dumped a measure in 2009 that would have raised the maximum dollar amount OSHA can fine for violations related to workplace fatalities.

“The legislature is very much a part of the Tea Party movement, and that’s good,” said Dallas Scholes of Williams Production RMT, who serves on WOGISA’s legislative committee.

All of this leaves WOGISA without a legislative agenda, at the moment, and on its own to figure out how to do its part to prepare for the next wave of energy activity.

“If you’re interested in solving the problem as a group, then you need to start to put together thoughts about how to do that. I will provide information, but it’s up to you guys and girls to figure out how you’re going to do it,” Wyoming state occupational epidemiologist Timothy Ryan told the group on Wednesday.

Ryan was hired in 2010 to gather and analyze workplace fatality data in hopes of identifying the root-cause of Wyoming’s poor performance.

He found that between 1992 and 2008 more than 41 percent of Wyoming’s workplace fatalities occurred on streets and highways. Nearly 38 percent of the workers killed in Wyoming came from companies employing only 1-10 people. Ryan said that while the number of workplace fatalities and injuries has decreased in recent years, the number of serious injuries is on the rise and there are indications that fatalities may again spike when drilling, construction and mining rebounds to pre-recession levels in Wyoming.

“We understand, now, a little better what the problem is. How do we solve the problem?” said Ryan. “I’m not even from Wyoming and it’s embarrassing to have this number of illness and fatalities that occur.”

For more information about the WOGISA effort, or how to get involved, go to www.wyomingsafety.org.

— Contact Dustin Bleizeffer at 307-577-6069 or dustin@wyofile.com.

NOTE: This column was updated on July 15 to clarify that Timothy Ryan’s analysis does not include use of seatbelts.

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Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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