The oil and natural gas industry has come a long way from the wild days of the 1970s when it was not unusual for rig hands and other oil-field workers to show up to work with flasks of whiskey and when on-the-job injuries were far more common.
I've heard stories of workers spending their days on “suicide rigs” that rattled and shook, sometimes raining bolts down on the unprotected workers below and of rig hands taking alcohol breaks before returning to operate the heavy machinery.
But today, safety is a key topic of discussion throughout the industry.
Even visitors who don't get close to the well head must wear protective gear on all active well sites.
“There's definitely a concentrated effort to make sure we keep drugs and alcohol out of the workforce and to keep workers safe, said Garrett Gumfory, vice president of risk and health, safety and environment at Fort Worth-based FTS International.
The changes have been gradual, but they also have been widespread, Gumfory said.
“I liken it to your seat belt,” he said. “Probably during those times (in the 1970s) not many people wore their seat belt. Now it's such a habit I can't imagine getting into a car without buckling my seat belt. The same thing is true with the hard hats, the safety glasses, hearing protection, fire resistant coveralls and gloves. I think that becomes ingrained over time.”
The biggest safety change over the past four decades may have been the implementation of drug and alcohol testing, according to Pat Carfagna, director of safety for Pennsylvania-based CONSOL Energy.
“If you look at industry in general, whether it's natural gas, manufacturing or anything else, before drug and alcohol testing, you saw it (drugs) everywhere,” he said.
The oil and natural gas industry also has focused on processes and equipment, reducing the opportunity for people to get hurt on the job.
Government oversight through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and other agencies has spurred the effort, but Gumfory said most industry players have gone much further than the law requires.
“OSHA sets the minimum floor, but everybody goes above and beyond that to ensure that we keep our workers safe,” he said. “That's the goal. It's not just to comply with OSHA. We want to keep everybody out of harm's way.”
Gumfory said there is pressure within the industry for each company to maintain a strong safety record.
“We can't stay in business and work with these folks if we're unsafe,” he said. “They wouldn't want to do business with us.”
On a rig site, it is common for representatives from more than a half dozen companies to work on a well together.
And the industry is still fairly small.
If a company has a reputation for being unsafe, word would spread quickly.
Another key motivation is cost. While safety equipment and training can be expensive, that cost does not compare to potential costs of injury or death.
“Safety is not nearly as expensive as not being safe,” Gumfory said.