Workplace deaths drop – but not in the oil industry
kissed his wife goodbye, stowed his sack lunch inside the cab of his
Chevy Avalanche and then returned to the house for one long last embrace
before setting off for the oil fields on April 14, 2009.
Rincon, fit from his daily workouts at 51, hoisted his sweetheart
atop a low step in the living room to even out a 4-inch height
difference and clasped her tightly against his coveralls.
"Te amo," he said. "Remember, you are the love of my life."
Then Rincon left for a Nabors drilling rig near his home in Pharr and
never returned, falling victim to one of the state's most deadly
Oil and gas field services and drilling workers were killed on the
job in Texas more than those in any other profession, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis of five years of fatal accidents investigated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Overall, workplace deaths have declined in Texas - but not in the oil
patch where 197 perished on the job, an average of 39 per year, worker
fatality statistics from 2007-2011 show. OSHA investigated at least 84
cases; dozens more died in job-related traffic accidents OSHA does not
The number of deaths might seem small with an estimated 110,000 to
140,000 drill and well supply workers employed at the state's booming
oil and gas fields. Nationally, those fatalities are combined with
mining in the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries. Texas' death rates
for mining/oil and gas - dominated by the state's oil patch fatalities -
repeatedly topped those for agricultural, construction and other major
industries, though some subcategories with far fewer workers, like
roofing and logging, have higher reported fatality rates.
The death toll already has prompted an unusual response.
OSHA in January called for a voluntary "stand down" for all oil and
gas employers in fields all across Texas and four other states -
temporary work stoppages meant to draw attention to potentially
life-threatening risks. So far, 88 companies have signed up to
participate in events through Feb. 28.
"The industry standard is always zero injuries and zero fatalities. Even one is too many," said Lisa London, executive director of the Division for Enterprise Development at the University of Texas at Arlington,
a group that has pushed to bring workers and employers together to
address rising reports of accidents tied to exploration booms.
No oil patch employer had more recent OSHA-reported deaths in Texas than Nabors Drilling USA LLC and its sister company Nabors Well Services,
both subsidiaries of a Bermuda-based corporation with headquarters in
Houston. The companies reported five deaths statewide, and two more in
North Dakota and Wyoming from 2007 to 2011.
Only three employers had three or more fatal accidents in the Lone
Star State: Nabors had five; Unit Texas Drilling LLC, a division of an
Oklahoma-based drilling company, had four and Express Energy Services,
a Houston well supply business, had four since 2007, based on the
newspaper's analysis of OSHA reports and information from the companies.
OSHA found violations at all five Nabors' fatal accident sites, and
the company was initially assessed $104,375 - a small fraction of the
reported $16 million annual compensation of the company's CEO, one of
Houston's highest paid executives.
'Committed to safety'
Nabors contested the fines, which were later cut in half.
In a statement, company spokesman Dennis A. Smith
said "Nabors is unequivocally committed to the safety of our employees
world-wide. ... We take every incident personally, because these are
terribly tragic events affecting our employees' families, friends and
all of us, their co-workers."
Smith said Nabors has generally reported lower fatal accident and
injury rates compared to other U.S. drilling companies based on
statistics he provided from the International Association of Drilling Contractors for 2007-2012.
Nabors operates in 24 countries and is among the top five drillers in
Texas with an average of 85 rigs working last year that employed about
1,983 people, Smith said. In 2012, Nabors spent nearly $100 million on
safety, training and related equipment worldwide.
"In summary, not one fatality or serious injury to any of our
employees is acceptable to us and our commitment to safety starts with
our CEO and permeates throughout our organization," he said.
Unit Texas Drilling LLC, part of the Oklahoma-based Unit Corp., was
initially assessed $32,625 for violations found in three of four
fatalities, records show. A smaller regional driller, Unit Texas has
employed from 414 to 534 workers statewide at 17 to 27 different rigs
from 2009-2012, according to the company. Unit Texas and Unit Corp. had six more deaths reported to OSHA in other states.
"The occurrence of even one (death) over any length of time is an unacceptable record to us," Michael Earl,
a spokesman for Unit Corp. said in response to emailed questions from
the Houston Chronicle. "Our employees are our most valuable asset and
our goal is to make sure that at the end of the day, each one is able to
return home to their families."
Most oil and gas workers' deaths occurred in remote rural areas, received little or no publicity and drew miniscule fines.
One Unit Texas employee, for instance, Henry Garza,
45, fell to his death on May 21, 2007, at a rig near tiny Stewards
Mill, a ghost town and state historic site with a population of only 22.
Unit was fined $1,625.
In all, Houston-based Express Energy has been assessed $5,650 by OSHA
for violations in two of three fatal accidents. (A fourth in 2012
remains under review.)
It paid $2,500 after Robert L. Jost
Jr., was killed by flying debris in a blowout at a natural gas well on
April 22, 2009, near Franklin, records show. His widow later filed a
lawsuit seeking $1.2 million, according to bankruptcy court records, and
the lawsuit was settled for an undisclosed sum.
Two other Express Energy employees died after getting caught in or were struck by drilling equipment.
Express Energy, which has 1,203 of its 1,898 employees in Texas, also
has invested heavily in safety improvements since 2011 - spending $20
million reworking its Health Safety and Environment Division and opening "Express University," a training school for all new employees, said spokeswoman Wendy Hall.
OSHA officials have stepped up proactive inspections at oil and well
drill sites across Texas and in other states. Last year, they completed
244 inspections in Texas - three times as many as in 2009. That's still a
fraction of drill sites: 22,479 permits were issued last year alone.
Two of Nabors' rigs were targeted for proactive inspections in
November 2011. After inspectors found violations at sites in Beaumont
and in Liberty County, officials proposed penalties of $152,100, but
Nabors has gone to court to contest them, said OSHA regional
spokesperson Elizabeth Todd.
Victim planned to quit
Nabors' largest fine in any Texas fatality came in the case of Sergio Rincon.
Rincon, a seasoned rigger who also had worked as a cook, had returned
for one more year of rig work to pay off tuition bills he'd accumulated
by sending his daughter to law school and paying for his son's final
year in college at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
He'd planned to quit to devote time to his first grandchild.
Instead he was struck in the head in 2009 when a metal attachment
fell from a forklift operated by a co-worker at Rig number 776. The
attachment had been incorrectly installed and the driver of the recently
acquired forklift confused its control levers, abruptly tipping the
basket and sending the heavy metal piece flying off toward Rincon,
OSHA inspectors initially found six serious violations and proposed a $36,275 penalty, which was later reduced.
A jury awarded $8.9 million to Rincon's family.
His daughter, Criselda Rincon-Flores,
a Hidalgo County assistant district attorney, was still on maternity
leave when her father was killed. Her baby, whom he got to meet due only
to a premature birth, is now 4.
"I see my mom lonely - she still lives in the same home in the same
neighborhood. And she's not happy," said Rincon-Flores, who drives her
dad's Chevy Avalanche to work every day. "We would give it all back if
only we could have my dad back."
Oil patch fatalities were reported statewide in many booming areas,
including in the Permian Basin near Midland, the Barnett Shale play in
the Fort Worth Basin and Eagle Ford Shale play in Southeast Texas as
well as in East Texas. From 2007-2011, Midland County and adjacent Ector
County in the Permian Basin each had six reported deaths.
"Generally what we're witnessing in the industry, particularly in
South Texas with the Eagle Ford Shale, is that they cannot staff these
wells quick enough and they are putting people in positions that they
are ill-trained and ill-prepared to handle," said John Escamilla,
Rincon's family's attorney.
Government safety inspectors found many oil field victims were
fatally injured by flying metal or got caught in equipment, including
rotary drilling machines. Others were electrocuted, fell or inhaled
Ralph Hudspeth, 56, a Nabors Well Supply employee, for example, was
fatally struck when metal pipes shifted and fell from a forklift at a
High Island well in 2011. Filiberto Salazar Jr., a married 27-year-old
father of two, died after getting pinned while washing the bottom of a
rig in 2008 in the Eagle Ford Shale region.
Two other Nabors employees, Joshua Smith, a 28-year-old father and former volunteer firefighter from Mississippi, and floorhand Victor Aviles, a 28-year-old Mexican immigrant, were electrocuted at East Texas drill sites in 2007 and 2010.
Aviles had worked in his latest assignment as a floorhand only five
weeks when he climbed into the upper section of a rig derrick near
Clayton to repair a lighting fixture, according to an OSHA report. He
was electrocuted on Aug. 20, 2007. Safety inspectors found that he and
another worker received inadequate training and were exposed to damaged
His widow won a wrongful death settlement that cost Nabors $1.1 million in payments and attorneys' fees, court records show.
Smith had been working for Nabors for two years - commuting hundreds
of miles from his Mississippi hometown, where he had a wife and two
children, to remote Texas sites every week or two, said LaDale Williams, Smith's longtime firefighting buddy.
Smith had recently been promoted to "motorman" when he was
electrocuted near Henderson on Oct. 26, 2010. His lifeless body was
recovered near a water well's electric pump control box - its electrical
circuits had been improperly grounded, records show.
Soon after, Nabors offered Smith's best friend a job.
"I didn't take it," Williams said. "It didn't feel right."
By the numbers