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Inside Energy: Dark Side of the Boom part 3

Darkside of the Boom: Why is Wyoming Safer?

INTRO: For more than a decade, Wyoming has been among the most dangerous places in the nation for workers. Deaths peaked in the late 2000s, at the height of the state’s natural gas drilling frenzy. Task forces were convened ….safety alliances were formed …. all to address what was billed as a problem with the state’s quote ‘culture of safety.’ The number of deaths has fallen in recent years. But has the safety culture changed, or did the drilling rigs just move on? As part of our ongoing series Dark Side of the Boom, Wyoming Public Radio’s Stephanie Joyce reports for Inside Energy.

In the woodshop at his house in Cheyenne, former Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal is working with a slab of wood. He looks sheepish as he observes that he’s not really a poster child for the culture of safety.

Freudenthal: You know I thought, I don’t have my ear protection out here that I’m supposed to have when I use this stuff, so I’m not a very good example.”

But back in 2009, Freudenthal was at the forefront of the ‘culture of safety’ conversation. In the first week of that year, three oil and gas workers died in Wyoming in separate accidents. One was crushed by a truck, another suffered a fatal head injury on a rig and yet another rolled his car after leaving the drill site. Freudenthal found himself trying to answer the question:

“How do you change the way we deal with safety in general in a place like Wyoming?”

A place with a very independent streak, and an anti-regulation TK. That meant two key recommendations for safety improvements -- mandated seat belts and higher fines for workplace accidents -- were basically non-starters. But a task force convened by Freudenthal came up with another recommendation that WAS approved: hire an occupational epidemiologist to study worker fatalities similar to the way diseases are studied. The first one person to hold the position didn’t last long -- he quit after less than 2 years on the job, frustrated at the snail pace of change.

“You know, you hire somebody like that to do that job because you want them to be passionate about it. Unfortunately, sometimes, that passion can cause them to be impatient with a slow and difficult cultural change in a place that’s been the way it’s been since territorial days.”

How slow and difficult is a matter of debate. The state’s current occupational epidemiologist, Mack Sewell, believes Wyoming is making progress.

“I have been very impressed with the activities of the Wyoming Oil and Gas Industry Safety Alliance.”

That’s an industry group that holds regular meetings and trainings for oil and gas operators. Sewell provides the group with data about how workers are injured and die, along with recommendations.

“I’ve had people come up to me from the audience and say, ‘This first time we've ever seen data like this,’ So I get the sense that the industry folks really like this kind of feedback.”

And Sewell thinks the information is helping reduce fatalities. Today, oil and gas workers in Wyoming are dying at half the rate they were back in the late 2000s. That’s on par with the nationwide rate for the oil and gas industry. But some people don’t think that’s good enough.

John Vincent is a lawyer who frequently represents injured oil and gas workers. Five years after the big push to reform things, he’s still seeing workers die, and he doesn’t see a big change in the culture...

“I just have to say it doesn’t appear that it’s gotten off to a running start.

So how does he explain the decline?

“The boom kind of shifted to North Dakota.

Wyoming’s rig count today is half what it was in 2006, while North Dakota’s is five times what it was. And it turns out that in boom times, workers die faster. Kyla Retzer is a researcher with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. She says there are a few explanations for that, starting with the fact that in a boom, companies tend to bring old rigs back that lack safety equipment.

“Also, more workers are hired and those workers often don’t have as much experience in the oil field and are more at risk.”

Especially if a “culture of safety” is lacking. Oil and gas development in Wyoming is once again ramping up, but this time, there will be plenty of people watching to see if the measures taken since the last boom make any difference in the lives and deaths oil and gas workers.

For Inside Energy, I’m Stephanie Joyce, in Wyoming.

TAG: Tomorrow, we’ll look at an industry that was booming 1990s and killing workers at a record rate… and what it did to change.

Inside Energy is a public media collaboration focusing on America’s energy issues.

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