OSHA has launched an investigation into what caused a drilling rig explosion this past January that left five dead in Pittsburg County, Oklahoma.

An Oklahoma Corporation Commission investigation report said authorities learned at 8:45 a.m. Monday, January 22, that the well was on fire from an uncontrolled gas release.

The report recommended that the operator should kill the well with heavy drilling mud, make sure it is stabilized with mud and cement plugs, and take soil samples by Feb. 23.

Patterson-UTI Energy, the drilling firm working the rig, has had a handful of OSHA inspection violations in Oklahoma over the past ten years.

“The people of Patterson-UTI are our primary focus, and keeping them safe at the well site is always our primary focus. ... We’ve operated across North America for a long time ... and for the past few years we’ve been one of the safest companies in the industry,” said Patterson-UTI President and CEO Andy Hendricks at a news conference.

Solid safety record

In an interview with the Tulsa World, Hendricks cited an industry benchmark for safety and said his firm exceeds that.

“For instance, the International Association of Drilling Contractors on a quarterly basis publishes the organization’s overall safety performance, and for years now … our incident reporting rate has been lower than the industry average,” Hendricks said. “Outside of the tragic event this week ... we were making good progress.”

Hendricks said the rig had gone to work for Red Mountain Energy, the operator of the site, in December.

A search of records over the past 10 years shows no instance of the site being inspected. Patterson-UTI has 30 rigs operating in Oklahoma, according to the Houston-based company’s website.

“We won’t speculate on the investigation at this point, but we will work with OSHA ... to begin the investigation because we want to learn from this,” Hendricks said at the news conference. He said that the national Chemical Safety Board (CSB), which often investigates similar incidents, had contacted the company.

Possible CSB investigation

A CSB spokeswoman said in an email, “The CSB is sending two investigators to gather additional information in order to determine if the CSB will be pursuing a full investigation.”

Fatalities among oil and gas extraction workers in Oklahoma are relatively rare. Seven workers in the industry died between 2011 and 2016, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics database.

A workplace safety expert with the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, Peter Dooley, said work in the oilfield is inherently dangerous.

“The thing that investigators need to be really looking is if there any sort of foreshadowing events ... that indicated possible problems and how they were responded to,” he said. “That’s going to be the most informative information.”

Source: The Tulsa World