Consider this to be a cautionary tale for those employers who have workers at oil and gas facilities throughout Texas, including those working in the Eagle Ford Shale. Your workers have a right to a safe workplace, and if something bad happens, it could come back to haunt you.
Did an Employer Ignore Safety Warnings?
According to a recent court filing, drilling company officials allegedly ignored warnings regarding safety equipment that was malfunctioning at an Oklahoma gas well before a blowout that occurred Jan. 22, 2018, near Quinton, Oklahoma, approximately 125 miles east of Oklahoma City. That blowout killed five workers, including Josh Ray of Fort Worth, Texas, and left a sixth worker seriously injured. The explosion marked the deadliest drilling accident since the explosion at the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico back in 2010.
In a December 4 amendment to their wrongful death lawsuit, the family on one of the deceased workers, Parker Waldridge, alleges that the blowout was caused by a “cascade of errors and multiple departures from safe drilling practices” by the drilling company Patterson-UTI Drilling. In all, the families of all six workers have filed lawsuits in the wake of this tragedy.
According to the lawsuit, Patterson-UTI Drilling alleges that the rig superintendent, manager, and several other management and workers received email results of a laboratory test that warned of difficulties with the rig’s accumulator, which is a piece of safety equipment designed to close part of the well to prevent an uncontrolled release of fluids. Those email warnings were received at least two days before the explosion, and they even came with what was described as a “skull and crossbones graphic (literally).”
What Caused the Blowout?
According to an investigation by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, the accumulator was unable to fully close the well on the day of the blast. Therefore, the lawsuit alleges, “Patterson Drilling had the most direct control over the drilling operations and emergency response to changing conditions and failed to use ordinary care with respect to its conduct.”
The company who owns the well and asked Patterson-UTI to run it, Red Mountain Energy, issued its own statement, claiming that Patterson-UTI’s “gross negligence led to a terrible tragedy.” They went on to note that, “(t)he facts cited in the amended petition demonstrate exactly which parties failed to perform basic safety procedures prior to this accident.” It should be noted that Red Mountain is also a defendant in the lawsuit.
Patterson-UTI responded to Red Mountain Energy’s statement, calling their allegations “inflammatory” and blaming the company for the well’s design and drilling program.
Employers Have a Solemn Duty to Protect Workers
If these accusations are true, this is a very serious violation of federal law. Unfortunately, what is described is not as unusual as it should be. Although employers have a solemn responsibility to ensure that all workers, including those at inherently dangerous job sites as oil and gas rigs, are able to work in a safe environment, too often employers make decisions that place money or “increased productivity” ahead of safety.
Last week, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published the top 10 workplace safety violations for the Fiscal Year 2018. The list is largely unchanged from 2017, and 2016, and 2015, and it reflects a relatively lax approach to safety on the part of employers. The 2018 TOP 10 violations are:
- Fall Protection – General Requirements (1926.501): 7,216 violations.
- Hazard Communication (1910.1200): 4,537
- Scaffolding (1926.451): 3,319
- Respiratory Protection (1910.134): 3,112
- Lockout/Tagout (1910.147): 2,923
- Ladders (1926.1053): 2,780
- Powered Industrial Trucks (1910.178): 2,281
- Fall Protection – Training Requirements (1926.503): 1,978
- Machine Guarding (1910.212): 1,969
- Personal Protective/Life-Saving Equipment – Eye and Face Protection (1926.102): 1,528
All of the above are imminently preventable. Falls are the most common cause of workplace serious injuries and fatalities year after year, and most can be prevented by implementing OSHA guidelines. The hazard communication standard provides workers with the knowledge to know which chemicals are potentially hazardous and to take proper precautions. The safety standards for scaffolding prevent the most common accidents and save lives.
In most cases, tragedies such as deadly gas rig blowouts are rare. As noted, this is the worst accident since 2010. When workers are killed as a result of an employer ignoring standards, that meets the very definition of negligence. If an employer chooses to ignore safety warnings when they are provided and workers are injured or killed, that can lead to serious liability and harsh consequences for said employer. Workers have rights, and employers are expected to create a safe workplace. Workers should always remember that.