Chronicle investigation: Peril in the oil patch

The drilling boom in Texas’ oil and natural gas fields has brought jobs and prosperity, but extracted a bloody human toll.

In Texas, 65 oil and gas workers were killed on the job in 2012  — a 10-year high and nearly 60 percent more than in 2011, according to official government statistics.

At least 18,000 suffered amputations, were crushed, burned, broke bones, or reported other kinds of work-related illnesses and injuries in the drilling and fracking boom from 2008 to 2013, according to workers’ compensation claims.  Many were hurt in work-related driving accidents; others in the oil fields. Few of the non-fatal accidents were investigated.

Many of the worst accidents and deaths could have been prevented, limited government investigations and court records on recent Texas accidents show. An exclusive investigative report by the Houston Chronicle found that many oil field workers were killed or permanently injured when supervisors opted for unsafe shortcuts, used poorly-maintained equipment or when green workers attempted complex tasks with inadequate training. Most oil field companies make up their own safety programs and rules because there are few regulations or industry standards — and as a result there are huge differences in training programs and safety standards used by companies who work together at the same sites. Sometimes those differences can be lethal.

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Six times as many people died in Texas in the oil patch in 2012 as in the Deepwater Horizon in 2010 — an offshore disaster that prompted reforms and tightening of rules to protect both the environment and workers’ lives. The deaths in Texas have attracted far less attention. Even in some of the worst accidents in recent years, only a handful of fines were above $40,000 —  a pittance in terms of oil field profits.  In general,  on-shore drilling is far less regulated than offshore drilling and as a result there is far less public information about accidents or about how to prevent them.

As part of this investigation, the Chronicle contacted representatives of oil and gas employers who reported paying the highest amounts in response to workers’ injury and illness claims that resulted in lost work time  from 2008-2012. You can view their responses and a database of claims reported by top 100 Texas oil field employers in terms of total benefits paid to workers who missed work because they suffered injures or work-related illnesses.

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