A Georgia handyman arrived in North Dakota three years ago. After two years in the Bakken oil field, he bought a truck and opened his own company. His business grew with the oil boom, expanding to four trucks and a dozen employees, and doing work for at least five different oil companies, according to an article in The Wall Street Journal.

On January 15, 2015, a fire broke out as he or one of his men worked in an enclosed shed near a heater tank that separates oil into various components. A battery-operated drill which wasn’t supposed to be in the confined space might have sparked the blaze. The owner died and two of his workers suffered burns. Colleagues said he had plenty of training, three years of intense experience.

“I don’t think either of us knew how dangerous it really was,” the owner’s wife told The Journal.

Modern-day Deadwood

Since the Bakken oil boom ignited in 2006, thousands of mostly young, mostly white men have followed the path of the Georgia handyman to the 200,000-square-mile Bakken “patch” rich with subsurface oil that stretches across western North Dakota and parts of Montana, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Some knew the risks coming in. Some arrived with no experience in the oil and gas industry. Few were prepared for what’s been called a modern-day Deadwood – a  gold rush-type money grab, frenzied and chaotic.

Some old-school locals have called it an invasion, a colossal mess. Small towns and rural counties have doubled and tripled in population. By April, 2014, hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technologies enabled production in the Bakken to exceed one million barrels a day. In one year, 2006 to 2007, the number of wells drilled in the Bakken jumped from 300 to 457.

Each rig is estimated to create roughly 125 new full-time jobs. Total employment growth in the Bakken approximates 25,000 jobs, with an extra 10,000 jobs in support services. Salaries in the Bakken average $80,000 to $100,000, according to estimates, with some jobs paying $150,000 and more. Some estimates predict that North Dakota could have as many as 48,000 new wells, with drilling occurring for the next 20 to 30 years.

This eruption of activity has made the Bakken the modern crucible of safety and health worker protection practices. With the boom has come virtually every safety and health hazard imaginable – toxic exposures; falls; fires; explosions; electrocutions; confined spaces; energized equipment; car and truck crashes; train derailments; hazardous material spill emergencies; weather extremes; noise and vibration; sprains, strains and fractures from lifting pipes and fittings and swinging the ubiquitous sledgehammers on rigs; fatigue from 12- to 20-hour days, sometimes working straight through for weeks, even months,  and drug and alcohol abuse.

Worldwide, 2,386 recordable incidents were reported by drilling contractors in 2013, according to the International Association of Drilling Contractors. Almost 800 cases involved fingers. Almost 800 recordable incidents were of the “caught between” variety, with about 600 due to being caught between objects or equipment, and slightly fewer than 200 due to slips and falls.

Practices & protocols

Hazards on the Bakken require applying virtually every standard safety and health practice: hazard communication, lockout-tagout, confined space safety, electrical safety, welding safety, behavioral safety, first aid/CPR, fire prevention, incident investigation, substance abuse screening, material handling safety, industrial hygiene, environmental health, job safety analysis, driver/transportation safety, PPE, permit to work, contractor safety, workplace violence prevention, stop work interventions, working at heights programs, hand safety, emergency evacuation, mentoring of new employees, pre-shift safety briefings, and excavation safety — trenching and shoring.

On July 15, 2014, OSHA launched a focused enforcement program to stem the tide of injuries and fatalities in North Dakota’s high-hazard industries, which also includes construction spreading across the prairie like wildfire. Since 2012, 34 North Dakota oil and gas and construction workers have died from work-related injuries; their deaths accounting for 87 percent of all North Dakota fatalities, according to OSHA. At least eight workers have died since October, 2014 in North Dakota’s oil fields, more than in the preceding 12 months combined.

“I’m literally going to be welding something that’s full of oil, I don’t feel comfortable welding this at all,” a North Dakota oil worker texted his girlfriend in October, 2014, according to a blog post in the Oil Patch Dispatch. The 28-year-old ex-Marine from Alabama died from injuries he suffered when the tanker he was welding in Williston exploded.

During the height of the Bakken boom, from 2010 to 2012, roadways became especially dangerous. According to the state’s Department of Transportation, in 2013 one person died in a crash every two and a half days; one crash occurred in a roadway under construction every day; and more than one speed-related crash took place about every four hours.

The boom takes a break

The plunging price of crude oil – around $58 per barrel in May, 2015, down from about $90 a year ago – has turned the boom not into a bust, insist public officials in the state, but rather a lull that affords small towns such as Williston and Watford City to play catch-up. Roads, sewage systems, water supplies, and housing are being expanded. Schools and retail stores are being built. And local law enforcement is being beefed up. Since 2010, DUIs in the Bakken region are up 300 percent. Felony assaults are up twice that much. The FBI warns that Mexican drug cartels are pushing meth, cocaine, heroin and marijuana, targeting the large paychecks of the mostly young men who work in the Bakken. Police say a bigger problem than meth and illegal painkillers is the increase in alcohol-fueled fistfights.

The slow-down in oil field operations has given oil companies the chance to strengthen safety cultures, enforce safety policies, and increase safety training, according to workers talking to local reporters. “Safety culture here is very prominent,” said one. A spate of negative publicity surrounding the high fatality rates and train derailments — one documentary is titled, “Death on the Bakken Shale” — has spurred more oil companies to be proactive about worker safety and health.

OSHA has had a local emphasis program – a mix of enforcement and education — for the oil and gas industry for the past four years. The agency has also participated in outreach events with oil and gas employers. More than 160 employers and 1,000 workers voluntarily ceased operations for one day in a multi-state stand-down to discuss hazards and control measures. “Since we started the original emphasis program, we have seen improvement in North Dakota’s oil fields,” said OSHA Area Director Eric Brooks, based in Bismarck, N.D.

Threats lurking in the lull

Still, the lull is not without its safety and health challenges. It’s a familiar story whenever profits are down, layoffs are up, and cost-cutting is paramount. Nabors Industries Ltd. reported first quarter 2015 U.S. drilling revenue declined 17 percent, and operating income decreased $13.5 million. The company expects further weakening in the second quarter. Nabors’ chief financial officer said in a press statement the company has already cut its total workforce by almost 5,500, and 2015 capital spending will be half of original plans.

In this challenging economic environment, some companies try to get by with lower-cost contractors, and choose not to confront contractors that don’t always supervise safety, enforce policies, or dispense with necessary PPE. ”Some companies are hypocritical, when it comes to money, they look the other way, some companies don’t practice what they preach,” one worker told a local reporter.

Cost-cutting and an “every penny counts” mindset can ratchet up pressures on oil field employees to “go, go, go and ignore the rules,” one trucker told a reporter. Four-man teams become three-man teams, with more work all around. Some truckers work past the legal limit for driving hours or overload their rigs to keep money coming in. One crane operator fell asleep at the controls. “Rain comes, 40-below comes, lightning and tornadoes come, we keep working,” a 35-year-old Williston man told the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Turnover is rampant, less experienced truckers are being hired in some cases, many workers are cross-training to take on construction jobs without thorough safety orientations, and recent press reports cite concerns about “an unusual number of basic safety errors.”

“There is a lot of catch-up going on,” one safety specialist tells ISHN in an email. “Developing an oil and gas play like the Bakken is a marathon, not a race.  The firms that will survive and successfully grow will be those who understand that their business will be more successful when their ‘management head’ is not planted where the sun don’t shine.  It is hard to see the goal when in that posture.”

Drilling contractor injury & illness rates

Oil and gas drilling contractors achieved injury and lost-time rates better than the national average in 2013, according to data compiled by the International Association of Drilling Contractors.

The IADC’s report shows in U.S. on-shore operations, the lost-time incident rate remained unchanged at 0.51, and the recordable incidence rate improved by 20 percent from 1.97 to 1.58 per 100 full-time employees. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data for 2012 showed U.S. private industry with 3.2 recordable cases per 100 full-time workers, and 1.8 cases of days away from work, job transfer or job restrictions due to injury for private industry.

Interview with the mayor of Boomtown USA

Williston, N.D., is at the epicenter of the Bakken boom. Mayor Hugh Klug has seen his city’s “service population” — the number of people who use the city’s infrastructure — grow from 25,915 to 31,143 between 2012-2014. This is ten times the normal rate. Some estimates project Williston’s population could reach 44,000 by 2017. ISHN asked Mayor Klug to discuss how Williston is coping with meteoric growth.

Describe the key investments Williston has made to cope with the influx of new residents.

“Williston has a $105 million new wastewater treatment plant; $50 million in sewer and water projects; and $200 million in road projects.

“We have doubled our housing from 5,000 units to more than 10,000 units. $76 million has gone into our new rec center. $60 million has been invested in a new high school; $5 million in new public buildings.

“We’ve hired 20 new patrol officers. The FBI is opening an office in Williston. We are building a fire station and are going to a full-time fire department.”

What has Williston done in the way of mental health services for individuals working far from home and families and facing job stresses and possible substance abuse challenges?

“Not much has been done. The state of North Dakota is in charge of mental health services, and it has not provided us with any help.”

What is your reaction to an often negative media portrayal of Williston?

“The media reported on problems that people with limited information were telling — stories that were partially true. I am telling people that if you want a story, I will provide you with the facts or the people who know the facts.

“We have started a campaign that tells how far Williston has progressed during the past five years. I am not afraid to talk about the problems, but if the media doesn’t agree to report on the progress, they don’t have much of a story.”

There have been reports of an “us versus them” situation in Williston, with long-time residents angered and anxious about the increase in crime and drug and sex trafficking. What is the current of long-time Williston residents ?

“Long-time residents have come to realize it is what it is. As we become a younger community, positive things are happening. Most people are looking forward to new experiences that will benefit them.”

“Safety is no accident at Nabors”

That’s the motto of Nabors Industries, Ltd.  Nabors owns and operates the world’s largest land-based drilling rig fleet. ISHN asked Steve Williams, Nabors’ Vice President of HSE and Risk Management, to comment on the company’s safety and health culture.

“Safety is the highest priority for Nabors. We achieved our best-ever safety results during 2014 with a total recordable incidence rate of 0.93 per 200,000 man-hours. Through the first quarter of 2015, we have improved even further by decreasing our total recordable incidence rate to 0.86.

“Despite the current challenging market conditions, which have forced us to adjust staffing levels in certain regions, our safety staff has remained essentially intact and we have intensified the focus on safety throughout the organization. We realize there is a lot of uncertainty among our workforce right now. We believe it is important to increase safety awareness during times like these.

“Although we continue to reduce overall operating and administrative costs, we have told employees that we will not compromise their safety and well-being. We are actually investing in new safety initiatives that can help strengthen our safety culture and prevent injuries. For example, our new STAR (Stop and Talk About Risk) initiative is underway and will be introduced to all Nabors supervisors worldwide. This is an important safety leadership tool that provides Nabors’ managers and supervisors with a structured, proactive approach for encouraging two-way dialog with their employees about potentially unsafe conditions and behaviors. The program ensures appropriate accountability, tracking and follow-up.

“Additionally, we will hold the company’s very first Global Safety Week during June. For the remainder of 2015, we plan two additional global safety campaigns – one which focuses on the prevention of dropped objects and another that promotes the importance of always following established safety procedures.”

“The industry has a zero incident safety goal” 

ISHN interviews Kari Cutting, VP of the North Dakota Petroleum Council

Describe the defining features of your members’ safety cultures.

“First and foremost, the safety culture includes both a top down and bottom up ‘safety first’ mentality.  Each employee has been empowered with the ability to stop work to point out a safety hazard.  In many cases, all safety incidents, their root causes and corrective actions are reported to the CEO.

“Companies maintain ongoing training programs that start on day one of employment and are repeated periodically. There are also periodic (monthly, weekly or daily) safety meetings and pre-task briefs that discuss and identify job hazards and their mitigation strategies, including personal protective equipment and means of preventing incidents.

“Written and firmly established standard operating procedures (SOPs) are part of the training program and are reviewed prior to each time they are used to identify the hazards and means of mitigation of hazards to prevent a safety incident.

“All safety programs include investigative procedures so that if an incident occurs, it is thoroughly investigated, the root cause is identified, a safety bulletin is put out to all employees discussing the incident and how it can be prevented in the future, along with any new equipment or processes that were adopted as a preventative measure. The SOP is then updated to incorporate this new information and/or equipment.”

How effective is your members’ safety and health training for new workers in the field?

“New employee training is extremely important.  In many organizations, new hires are identified by their badge color or hard hat color to make sure all supervisors and co-workers know they are new on the job and to keep a close eye on them and help them out.”

Describe the best practices your members take to reduce fatigue and stress.

“Companies evaluate their needs against known fatigue, stress, and hours worked and establish work schedules accordingly.  Human beings, however, differ in their need for rest, and that is why it is important that employees have the authority to stop a job if they identify a process or a co-worker that is in a dangerous situation.”

How do your members balance the need to contain costs with maintaining best practices in safety and health?

“It is true that industry is exploring all types of cost-cutting measures; however, the cost-cutting we see is in achieving greater efficiencies with equipment and with employees.  Rigs can now drill twice as many wells in the same amount of time. Recycle and reuse of water or greater efficiencies in waste management all lower the cost of doing business. Pipelines are more common to move water, crude oil and natural gas to and from the well pad, reducing traffic on the roads and reducing the potential for vehicle crashes. Safety incidents are very costly in terms of dollars, man hours, and employee morale. It doesn’t make sense or cents to not maintain a robust safety culture. We have had reports from some contractors who have actually seen producers increase their safety audits and protocol since the downturn. “

“I feel very edgy every time one of those trains passes”

Crude oil rail shipments streaming out of the Bakken have posed risks for years. “I feel a little on edge – actually very edgy – every time one of those trains passes,” a coffee shop owner in Casselton, N.D., told The New York Times last year.

And with good reason. There is only one refinery in the Bakken area. A shortage of pipeline capacity causes producers to ship out oil by truck or rail. More than 60 percent of Bakken crude is transported by rail. Some tests of Bakken shale oil suggest that the crude is especially flammable, perhaps in part due to it being produced at a breakneck pace that has drilling companies not always following standard industry practices to separate out volatile gases. The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued a safety alert involving Bakken crude, warning first responders that Bakken crude “may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil.”

Bakken crude carried by train caught fire in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in 2013, after a 79-car train careened off the track and exploded, killing 47 people and destroying 40 buildings. Part of the disaster was blamed on the fact that the crude was mislabeled as a lower risk oil and was shipped in substandard tank cars not designed to contain it. A derailment in Alabama later in 2013 involved 2.7 million gallons of Bakken crude, and in December, 2013, a train carrying crude collided with another train in North Dakota, releasing more than 400,000 gallons into the surrounding land. “These exploding tank cars are obviously very powerful and dangerous,” North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple told The Times.

On May 1, 2015, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced a final rule designed to reduce rail spills by setting new tank car standards, scheduling retrofitting for older tank cars carrying crude oil and ethanol, requiring a new braking standard, and new operational protocols.

Worker fatigue is a serious worry

 “Worker fatigue from long shifts for multiple consecutive weeks or even months is a serious concern in the O&G industry,” Wayne Vanderhoof, CSP, president of RJR Safety, Inc., tells ISHN in an email. “Some operators and some contractors are implementing Fatigue Management Programs, yet many are not.

“The programs generally state that workers cannot work more than 16 hours out of a 24-hour period without having a straight 8 hours of off-time. This gets hard when the worker works 16 hours and then drives home or to a hotel up to 2 hours away each way. This takes 20 hours total out of a 24-hour period, which leaves only 4 hours of down time (not necessarily rest or sleep). Some workers work more than 12-hour shifts on a continuous basis for weeks at time.

“This Fatigue Management Program, along with other safety procedures, are only as good as when contractor management enforces and supports the procedures and programs.

“Due to the mobility of the work areas and the 24/7 operations during drilling and completions, the workers are traveling back and forth in motor vehicles from their homes or a hotel to the wellsite. There are a significant number of motor vehicles on the road from pick-up trucks to water trucks to tractor trailers to forklifts to aerial lifts to earth-moving equipment. All this vehicular traffic causes motor vehicle incidents and a significant number of fatalities and more injuries than fatalities.”

Where are all the industrial hygienists?

“Unfortunately, IH practices in the O&G extraction industry has a lot to be desired,” Bart Dawson, a member of the American Industrial Hygiene Assocation’s Oil and Gas Working Group, tells ISHN in an email.  “Most businesses have outdated practices and many times, best practices in IH practices are overshadowed by safety hazards (i.e., dropped objects). We often hear of drilling foremen and superintendents having  a poor knowledge of and understanding of industrial hygiene practices.  I also haven’t witnessed an adequate job in handling hazard communication responsibilities.”

Training short timers

“The industry has — and operators require by contract that contractors have — a Short Service Employee (SSE) Program which, generally, applies to workers with less than 6 months of experience in the industry,” Wayne Vanderhoof tells ISHN.

“This SSE Program requires the assigning of a mentor (an experienced worker that knows the tasks, has a good safety attitude, and can provide training) to provide job training following a specific and documented process of tasks and periodic evaluations until the SSE is properly trained and can complete the tasks safely and correctly. Depending on the complexity of the task, the SSE Program, including the mentoring and training, may last from one month to six months or more.”