Disposable workers of the oil and gas fields

If you don’t have a college degree, it’s the best job in the West. Unless you die, unnoticed.

  • At sunrise, a roughneck begins a shift by guiding the massive sheave — a block and tackle on steroids — into place over a drill string that will be pulled under enormous pressure from a depth of more than 10,000 feet

    JT Thomas
  • Ninety-foot lengths of drill pipe are pulled from the well hole and stacked on the rig. It takes a well-coordinated heave-ho from the “derrick man” up in the “crow’s nest” and the roughneck on the drill platform to swing them safely into position

    JT Thomas
  • Colton Bryant with his wife, Melissa, and kids, shortly before he fell off a drilling rig walkway that had an inadequate railing; the February 2006 accident killed him

    Courtesy Bryant family
  • After drilling as deep as several miles into the earth, sometimes at complex angles, the pressure on the “string” becomes immense, at times peaking at 1 million pounds, and the rig strains while the crew is “tripping out” — pulling the entire length of mud-filled drill sections

    JT Thomas
  • Marsha Iriberry, who suffered many broken bones in a 2003 pipeline explosion, with her dog, Mickey, who recently lost part of a front paw in a coyote trap

    Ray Ring
  • D.J. Maser Jr. was 16 when he got badly burned in a welding shop that serves the oil and gas industry. Ten years later, he works in drywalling, and under the sheetrock dust, the burn scars show on his arms and hands. He got the black eyes at a recent party where he had too much to drink — a rare event, he says

    Ray Ring
  • Chemical-laden “mud”splashes from the hole as roughnecks work with the massive “string” that’s being pulled from deep in the earth

    JT Thomas
  • A roughneck works to get a pipe fitting screwed onto the drill section

    JT Thomas
  • Josh Riedel, front, wanted to be a pilot, and got a thrill on his first parachute jump. A few months after this photo, he took a summer job on a Wyoming drilling rig, hoping to save money for college. The rig’s massive “tongs” — for screwing pipes together — slammed and killed him

    Courtesy Riedel family
  • Safety features abound on newer drilling rigs. But constant demand for maintenance frequently puts roughnecks in high-risk and high-voltage situations.

    JT Thomas
  • A “derrick man,” seen here descending from the rig, can spend most of his 12-hour shift harnessed to the rig and suspended more than 70 feet above the main deck on a catwalk. He maneuvers tethered drill sections into position, an especially demanding job in harsh weather.

    JT Thomas
  • Despite sophisticated computers on some rigs, it is ultimately up to the drill operator to take the pulse of the rig and to watch the backs of his fellow roughnecks. “Whatever is going on, we always just move slow,” says one.

    JT Thomas
  • A roughneck wrestles 500-pound “break-out tongs” across the rig deck to unscrew a drill section from the “kelly.” Immediately afterward, another drill length is hoisted into place and screwed into the string. The driling process continues 24-7 until the maximum “trip” depth is achieved.

    JT Thomas
 

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More than 800 men from 44 states, including many military veterans, have completed the weeklong course. Most get jobs on Western drilling rigs; they constitute a noticeable stream into the region’s pool of about 4,000 rig workers, a pool that churns constantly as workers quit. “Some companies have told us their safety is improving, and they attribute some of that to better-trained workers,” says Chris Corlis, the school’s director, who’s also crowned by a white hard hat.

Pretty much everyone agrees that rig safety in general has improved over the decades. The industry hasn’t reformed its structural problems, though. Those begin with the standard 12-hour shifts, working seven to 14 days in a row, with the off-duty workers holed up in spartan barracks. Safety agencies frequently note long shifts and worker fatigue as accident factors. There’s also the dangerous old technology: Many drilling rigs are more than 20 years old, built in the last big drilling rush; they’re constantly rebuilt and modified, but many still use outdated technology, such as naked, mechanically spun chains that screw together sections of pipe. The agencies allow companies to decide when they can afford to phase out the chains and other vintage equipment.

Wyoming OSHA has only eight cops, the “compliance officers” who inspect workplaces, cite companies, and investigate accidents. Only six of them concentrate on safety; the other two enforce health-related regulations. The number of safety cops hasn’t changed since the 1980s. Kathryn Sessions, a state senator from Cheyenne whose constituents include friends of a man killed on a drilling rig, tried to pass a bill in 2005 to fund two additional state safety cops. It was overwhelmingly rejected. Gov. Freudenthal kept pushing, and last year, the Legislature funded a single additional staffer — but not a safety cop. Rather, that staffer will be in Wyoming OSHA’s “consultation” program, which makes presentations on safety to companies that request it. “It’s this tantrum against regulations, resistance to any oversight,” Sessions explains. Another Wyoming trait.

Responding to the increase in deaths, Wyoming OSHA is inspecting more drilling rigs; the state now looks at a couple of dozen per year. But more than 100 rigs operate in Wyoming, including the ragtag coalbed methane fleet, and they’re constantly moved, drilling hole after hole, so each rig presents many workplaces per year. It’s still extremely rare to see an OSHA cop inspecting a rig, unless an accident has occurred. And the drilling rigs have the highest enforcement profile; other oil and gas workplaces get far less attention.

This industry regulates itself, really, by monetary pluses and minuses. Accidents raise costs, mainly insurance rates. On the other side of the ledger are the profits. The operator in charge pays up to $4 million to a drilling company for an average deep natural gas well and about $100,000 for a shallower coalbed methane well. Going faster reduces costs and increases profits, unless there’s an accident. It’s an ongoing balancing act, regularly tinged with blood.

“Many companies have safety policies, but guess what — if the work’s not getting done, who’s getting fired, regardless of the safety issues? (Sometimes) it’s the managers (on each rig),” says Bob Schilling, who helped run two Wyoming rigs where men died falling from derricks in 2001 and 2004. Bosses at various levels are “crunching their numbers,” he says. “To get things done efficiently, fast, (some will) sidestep safety stuff.”

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Wyoming OSHA has its headquarters in the capital city, Cheyenne, tucked into a plain building that used to be a Montgomery Ward department store. Inside, I shake hands with the program manager, J.D. Danni. His father worked as a “mud man,” delivering chemical stews to oil and gas wells. Danni has a petroleum engineering degree and 15 years with Wyoming OSHA, nearly the last three as the boss.

Danni has a careful way of speaking, an even tone. He’s balanced between all the spinning chains of the industry — the Legislature, the governor and the families. Answering questions dutifully, here and in earlier phone talks, he explains why, when Wyoming OSHA hits a company with a fine, sometimes it doesn’t seem substantial, particularly in fatal accidents. That’s a pattern in the region: In general, the three state-run OSHA programs impose even lower fines than the federal OSHA programs, and they fine less often.

"The penalty is not associated with the death of that person," Danni says. "We try to emphasize that to the spouses and families (of the victims)." OSHA’s main goal is to get companies to correct unsafe procedures and equipment, he says, and "essentially to prevent it from happening again." If companies show they’ve made corrections, fines are reduced.

"Doing a fatality investigation," he adds, "it’s difficult to keep your feelings in check. We try not to get on one side or the other."

Even so, the Wyoming OSHA cops — under the leadership of Danni and the previous program manager, Steve Foster — show their dedication by making public the clearest, most detailed oil-and-gas accident reports of any OSHA program in the region. Sometimes, they reveal harrowing details and industry wrongdoing:

• In Harvey Montoya's case, for instance, two crews — one from California and one from Wyoming — were working on a new high-tech rig that was smaller than normal rigs. Some gear was too big, clearances were too tight. Montoya was perched in a basket that rode on vertical rails up the derrick. As the crews hoisted a piece of equipment, it snagged on the basket and pulled it upward quickly. Montoya’s fall-protection lanyard crushed him into the corner of the rising basket; the basket tipped over and he fell out, swinging on the lanyard, pendulum-like, into the derrick, which killed him. It was Aug. 6, 2002.

As Wyoming OSHA noted in its report, the rig’s driller was isolated in a soundproof control room, and the intercom that connected him to the outside had been broken for five weeks, so he didn’t hear the crew yelling at him to stop the hoisting that killed Montoya. OSHA also observed “tension, intimidation, friction” between the two crews and found they were being pushed too hard. Fatigue was a possible factor: Montoya, 39, was in the California crew, and they’d driven straight from California to the well “just prior to the accident.”

OSHA’s fine against Montoya’s employer, Wyoming-based Central Valley Tongs, was $10,000.

• During a night shift on Dec. 22, 2004, Phillip Lynn Pepper was on a platform nearly at the top of a tall rig. He leaned out to grab a hoisted pipe, lost his balance and fell 90 feet. He wasn’t wearing a proper fall-protection lanyard because that rig didn’t have a lanyard in the crow’s nest; it had broken 13 days earlier, but the rig had operated without it. The safety manager for the company, True Drilling, had a replacement lanyard in his pickup and didn’t drop it off. A different worker finally did get a replacement lanyard to the rig the day before the accident, but a boss on the rig said the weather was too bad — 35 below zero — to send anyone up the derrick to install it. Just the same, True Drilling sent men up to work in that same weather, without a safety lanyard. Pepper had 24 years in the oilfields; the autopsy showed methamphetamine and marijuana in his blood.

Wyoming OSHA said the drillers in this case “feared repercussions (from higher bosses) if they shut down operations” for safety reasons. True Drilling, which has more than a dozen rigs, got hit with the biggest fine in a Wyoming oil-and-gas accident in this decade: $19,250.

• Doug Shymanski, Dec. 12, 2005: Another drilling rig went through a run of 35-below weather, then had trouble with a broken drill bit, the pipe string getting stuck in a tight, 11,278-foot-deep hole. The rig had just lifted 373,000 pounds of pipe all at once when a large pulley at the top broke apart. “The entire rig rattled and banged,” and someone yelled, “Oh s—t,” and “everyone took off running,” the OSHA report says. Shymanski’s path was blocked by a heater installed near the door to the “doghouse” shelter. As he scrambled around the heater, a falling segment of steel cable sliced into his back and killed him. The company, Cyclone Drilling Inc., said it had inspected the pulley regularly and found no deficiencies. But several workers told OSHA they’d noticed the pulley looking worn weeks earlier and had reported it to bosses.

OSHA had an engineering professor examine the pieces of the pulley, and he found it “beyond worn; it was extremely fatigued.” Shymanski had more than 25 years in the oilfields; speed and pot were in his blood when he died. The fine against Cyclone Drilling: $16,250.

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“Safety here is all day, every day,” says Patrick Hladky, operations manager at Cyclone Drilling, when I visit the company’s Gillette headquarters, a one-story building barely visible amid a full-scale blizzard. Cyclone is a classic go-getter Wyoming oil and gas company, family-owned, begun with one pieced-together rig in 1975. It has 27 rigs now, spread from New Mexico to North Dakota, and about 600 employees. Cyclone’s founder and president, Jim Hladky, tells me good-naturedly that he’s been hurt in two accidents: Before the safety-glasses era, a “wicker” — a steel splinter — flew from a cable into one of his eyes. He probably would’ve lost the eye, but that rig happened to be near doctors in Casper.

Then in 1994, while he assembled another rig, a mud line blew out, “sand-blasted” him, knocked him out, and left him with a scar down one cheek. Cyclone’s longtime safety manager, Tom Taylor, is missing most of four fingers on his right hand; that happened in 1974, when he tried, unsuccessfully, to stop a 3,000-pound pipe from rolling over another man. Paul Hladky, one of the founder’s sons, smashed some of his fingers while lowering pulleys in the Cyclone shop in 2004. Patrick Hladky, the founder’s other son, is intact, in black-rimmed glasses and a golf shirt.