Eagle Ford pay is high, but work can be fatal

By John Tedesco
San Antonio Express-News

The last time derrickman Julio Barrera spoke to his wife, he was worried and told her he didn’t know what to do.

It was Sept. 1, 2009, and Barrera and his rig crew were having trouble in Webb County erecting and stabilizing a derrick, according to his wife, Claudia Hernandez, and inspection records on file with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a federal agency that oversees worker safety.

“He called me and he told me that the tower was moving and he didn’t want to go up it,” Hernandez recalled. “And they told him if he didn’t go, he was going to lose his job. And he went. And then that’s how he fell.”

The day after that phone call, Barrera climbed 25 feet up the derrick owned by Coastal Drilling Land Co. LLC to fix a locking pin in the metal frame. The structure began swaying. Before he could react, the derrick tipped over and crashed to the rig floor, fatally crushing him under tons of metal.

Barrera was a 25-year-old father of two children — with another baby on the way.

Thanks to the Eagle Ford Shale and other lucrative oil and gas fields in South Texas, thousands of oil and gas workers are finding steady jobs and fat paychecks. But the boom has come at a steep cost.

Since 2009, at least 11 employees working for drilling companies and spinoff industries in Eagle Ford Shale counties have suffered horrific deaths that could have been prevented, according to OSHA investigations obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

The files show federal inspectors found safety violations at the site of every fatality, and often concluded that companies hadn’t taken adequate steps to keep their workers safe.

“For a lot of employers out there, they make a real effort,” said Michael Rivera, area director for OSHA’s Corpus Christi office, which monitors most of the Eagle Ford Shale region south of San Antonio.

“I see a lot of good people working hard to keep things safe,” Rivera said. “That being said, there are those who just don’t. There are those who kind of hurry, maybe take a shortcut. Not to hurt anybody or kill anybody. But time is money, right?”

Death toll

Most of the Eagle Ford accidents occurred at rig sites in a handful of counties in the southern portion of the shale where drilling is most prolific. The 11 deaths are nearly a third of the 35 completed OSHA fatality investigations in Texas for the oil and gas industry since 2009.

The actual death toll most likely is higher, because OSHA’s open investigations for recent accidents aren’t available to the public. That makes it difficult to tell how many workers died last year, when drilling permits in the region skyrocketed to more than 4,100.

OSHA hasn’t hired more inspectors to keep up with the upswing in drilling. Rivera oversees 10 compliance officers responsible for inspecting all types of businesses in a 30-county swath of South Texas. He’s not openly complaining about a lack of resources, but the number of inspectors has remained the same since the discovery of the Eagle Ford Shale play in October 2008.

OSHA doesn’t investigate transportation accidents on public roads, which killed 40 oil and gas workers in Texas from 2009 to 2011.

Read more: Federal investigators urge Texas to tighten safety rules

The agency focuses on workplace safety. At drilling sites, employees often work long hours under a tremendous sense of urgency around heavy, unforgiving equipment.

Many also work in remote areas, hours away from a hospital. In one case, paramedics faced delays in reaching an injured repairman at a rig site. Three hours after the accident, the worker finally arrived by helicopter at University Hospital in San Antonio. He died in the operating room.

In Barrera’s case, an OSHA inspection determined that the rig manager and other supervisors knew the derrick’s locking pins were malfunctioning, but the company “failed to adhere to its own” safety program.

Messages left with Coastal, based in Corpus Christi, weren’t returned for this report.

Like many of the fatal accidents, Coastal’s penalty of $5,600 for a “serious” OSHA violation was whittled down even further to $3,920. OSHA often agrees to settlements after companies protest, or mitigating factors are taken into account.

Initial fines against all companies for the 11 fatal accidents averaged $10,900 per death. OSHA ultimately agreed to cut penalties by nearly 45 percent to $6,100, records show.

Rivera said the safety of oil and gas workers is a top priority for his office. He acknowledged that some fines might not scare large firms, but added that most companies want to run a safe shop and avoid dealing with an OSHA investigation altogether.

Workplace deaths must be reported to OSHA within eight hours, and the agency investigates every incident. OSHA also requires companies to devise a plan to fix the problems that led to the accident.

“Is it a deterrent?” Rivera asked, referring to the fines. “I would say, if the penalty is not a deterrent, sometimes the violations themselves could be a deterrent to a lot of employers.”

‘A dangerous job’

Drilling has always been a tough job, but longtime workers such as James May said oil and gas companies have grown more stringent about safety.

As May took a break outside a gas station about an hour south of San Antonio on Interstate 37, grimy pickups from drilling sites packed the parking lot. Flares belched in the distance burning off excess natural gas.

May, who’s worked in the industry since 1979, said the good old days weren’t so good in the oil patch. Back then, companies had an “anything goes” attitude toward safety, May said.

“I’m glad things have changed to where they are now,” May said. “But it’s still a dangerous job. Every aspect of it is pretty dangerous.”

In South Texas, one out of five fatalities OSHA has investigated in the past decade was at an oil and gas company.

Concerned by the death toll, OSHA regulators in Corpus Christi launched an initiative nearly 10 years ago called the South Texas Exploration and Production Safety Network. Membership of the STEPS Network is voluntary for companies seeking ways to improve their safety record.

“Basically the idea was to get the folks in oil and gas drilling, what they call the upstream part of the business, to get together and discuss safety issues and discuss how to keep the industry as safe as possible,” Rivera said.

One problem discussed at the network’s monthly meetings is how the high demand for workers in the Eagle Ford Shale has produced a fresh crop of inexperienced new hires.

Another problem: A drilling site is usually a hectic place with a mix of workers from different companies.

“You might have a (drilling) mud contractor, a logging contractor and lots of different contractors doing different jobs out there,” Rivera said. “And the communication between all those different people can be a real issue.”

The STEPS Network in Corpus Christi has inspired similar efforts in other parts of the country. OSHA and STEPS are calling for an industrywide “stand down” in states that include Texas in which oil patch crews won’t work on Feb. 28 in an effort to reduce accidents.

Making a difference?

Not every oil and gas company participates in the STEPS Network, and it’s difficult to gauge how much members have learned from the program.

Since 2009, OSHA has opened two fatality investigations in South Texas of Patterson-UTI Drilling Co. LLC, a large drilling company based in Houston. One of the firm’s safety directors had served on the executive committee of the STEPS Network.

On Nov. 27, 2010, at a Patterson derrick eight miles west of Cotulla, workers were assembling segments of a drive system that rotates the drill string when one of the heavy pieces of gear slipped off. Weighing about a ton, it fell 20 feet and killed Jeffrey Wayne Ferguson Jr., who had a wife and son.

“It’s just a rat race out there in the shale,” said Corpus Christi lawyer Bill Edwards Sr., who represented the Ferguson family in their lawsuit against Patterson and other companies involved in the drilling operation. The case settled this year in a confidential agreement.

OSHA proposed fining Patterson more than $52,000, but that amount later was reduced to $21,000. It’s the most expensive penalty issued by OSHA for an Eagle Ford Shale death since 2009.

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In August 2011, OSHA opened another fatality investigation of an accident at a Patterson rig near Carrizo Springs. The agency hasn’t released the full details.

Andy Hendricks, president and chief executive officer of Patterson’s parent company, said the firm spent $150 million on training and safety improvements over the past decade. New employees must go through a three-week training program before they even step foot on a rig.

Hendricks declined to discuss the fatal accidents, but described them as tragedies that underscored the importance of continuing to strengthen Patterson’s safety program.

“We’ve been doing a lot over the years to improve safety,” Hendricks said.

Hired last year, he said he wasn’t familiar with the STEPS Network but added that his company’s injury rates are lower than many competitors.

Rivera said it’s hard to say whether the STEPS program improved the safety record at Patterson.

“That’s a very large company, with lots of different divisions,” Rivera said. “I can’t say one way or another whether STEPS actually had a concrete effect on the company or not. We’re not there to shame people, and we’re not there to push them away. Folks take what they want to take from those meetings.”

Irreplaceable

When OSHA created STEPS, officials said one worker death in the oil patch was one too many. But the inspection reports show how quickly a situation can turn deadly at a rig site.

On April 1, 2011, an unsecured, 8-pound metal bolt fell 142 feet off an Orion Drilling derrick near Catarina. Plummeting at an estimated speed of 65 mph, the bolt struck worker Michael Duckett on the head, killing him. His helmet didn’t protect him.

“Orion management failed to inspect the derrick for loose tools or other materials which could possibly fall during the rigging-up process,” an OSHA report stated. The agency proposed fines of $6,300, which were later reduced to $4,725.

Messages left with Orion Drilling last week weren’t returned.

On July 13, 2010, Justin Perez, 27, was working by himself for B&J Air and Pump in McMullen County when he stopped to check on a leaking pipe. He fell into a hidden wash-out — a water-filled hole in the ground. The water was scalding hot, and by the time Perez dragged himself out, he had suffered second-and third-degree burns.

Perez died 10 days later.

The family of Chandler “Chad” Bunting remembers him as tough former Marine who was no stranger to pain. In the military, he once suffered a broken foot but didn’t get it treated until the day’s mission was completed. A tattoo on his right arm said: “No regrets.”

In civilian life, Bunting worked for Tubal-Cain Hydraulic Solutions. On Jan. 11, 2012, Bunting, 26, was troubleshooting equipment at an Orion Drilling rig at Galvan Ranch in Webb County. The hydraulic system hadn’t been depressurized and was operating at 1,500 pounds of pressure per square inch.

The equipment burst and Bunting’s wrench slammed into his face and neck.

An Orion Drilling employee called 911 at 2:30 a.m. Bunting, conscious and in pain, waited for paramedics. But Cotulla EMS, in neighboring La Salle County, initially was sent to the wrong location.

When paramedics finally arrived, Bunting was suffering shortness of breath. A helicopter was dispatched to transport him but it had to land a mile away from the rig, causing further delays, records show.

Bunting finally arrived at the emergency room of University Hospital in San Antonio at 5:40 a.m. — more than three hours after the accident. His heart stopped beating. Medical personnel resuscitated him and rushed him to an operating room. His heart stopped again and Bunting couldn’t be resuscitated, according to a Bexar County medical examiner’s report.

Bunting left behind a young daughter and family members with unanswered questions.

“We had no idea the injuries would ultimately take Chad’s life,” his family wrote on a memorial website.

An employee who answered the phone at Tubal-Cain declined to comment and the company’s lawyer did not return messages.

An OSHA inspection concluded that emergency preparations at the remote rig site and the coordination between Orion Drilling and Tubal-Cain were both “lacking.” OSHA proposed fines of $9,800 for Tubal-Cain that were later reduced to $4,900.

Many families of workers who died on the job turn to the courts for recourse. After Barrera died in the derrick collapse, his widow sued Coastal and other companies tied to the drilling operation.

Claudia Hernandez had two sons and was pregnant with a third child when her husband died. She reached a confidential settlement with the companies.

“I did get money,” Hernandez said. “But they’re not going to give me what my kids lost.”

She said the little things many families take for granted, like playing outside with the kids, are heart-wrenching. Hernandez can’t stop thinking about her children growing up without their father.

“They go to a park or something and see other kids with their dads,” she said. “That’s something I can’t replace.”