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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The Cyclone headquarters reflects a sense of pride in mission. Dozens of color photos of drilling rigs decorate the walls: rigs lit up at night like Christmas trees, rigs at sunset, rigs in mountains and in sagebrush, rigs in all seasons. A shiny chromed drill bit, its teeth worn and chipped from hard use, rests on a pedestal in the lobby, with a plaque that says it had penetrated 112,707 total feet underground in 1,701 hours.

Patrick Hladky rattles off some of the thrusts of Cyclone’s safety program: Four staffers devoted to safety awareness, plus a mobile classroom on a bus and a stationary classroom in a man-camp near Pinedale. The company pays a $2-per-hour bonus and gives prizes — including TVs, silver belt buckles and hunting knives — to crews with good safety records. It donated major components of an old rig to the drillers’ school in Casper.

The wall calendar, back by the coffee machine, advises, “Embrace safety like it’s your wife!”

Cyclone operated nearly 30 years without a fatality. But the company has had three deaths, including Shymanski’s, in the last three years. Why? “I can’t put my finger on it,” Patrick Hladky says. “Each (accident) is different. Everybody likes to point to the company when something goes wrong.” But, he says, every worker has to take responsibility, too. “Everybody has to be on board, all day, every day,” he says.

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Kim Floyd of the AFL-CIO has a take on the oil and gas industry’s overall commitment to safety, and it’s a harsh one: “They treat employees like a commodity. Once one is gone, there’s another standing to take his place.”

D.J. Maser Jr. shares that point of view. When I track him down, he’s using sandpaper to smooth sheetrock seams in a raw, unfinished house in Rock Springs, Wyo. He and the others in his crew — his brother, a cousin and a friend —- are covered with dust; a boombox blares rock music, and they’re swigging cans of an energy drink called Amp. D.J. is embarrassed, because he has two black eyes, the result of drinking too much last Saturday night and getting into a fistfight.

D.J. takes a break, lights a Marlboro, and talks about the accident he had at the periphery of the oil and gas industry. In 1997, when he was a 16-year-old high-school kid, he got a part-time job in the new L&H Welding and Machine shop on the edge of town. For D.J.’s first five days, the company had him degreasing a press brake, a huge machine used to bend steel. (It was not working at the time.) With “flash naphtha solvent” and rags, he rubbed the machine down inch by inch and tossed the dirty rags into a pile on the floor — all following bosses’ orders, he says.

On the fifth day, two men were welding on machinery nearby, and the sparks ignited the rags. D.J. tried to stamp out the fire, and that ignited his solvent-soaked coveralls. “The flame just shot up my whole body. It happened really quick,” he says. “I tried to drop and roll, which wasn’t working on a concrete floor. So I ran outside to roll in the dirt. When that didn’t work, I actually started to think of ways to kill myself, so that I didn’t burn to death. There were flames shooting five to six feet off of me. (Then) somebody ran up with a fire extinguisher.”

They rushed him to the local hospital, then by Life Flight to the Intermountain Burn Unit at the University of Utah Hospital. He almost died; with second-and-third-degree burns over 26 percent of his body, he was in immense pain and shock. Surgeons put him through four rounds of grafting skin from his thighs onto the burns on his arms and hands. The grafts were incredibly painful, and then he went through 18 months of painful physical therapy, at least six hours a day to begin with.

“The thing with burn scars is, they coil up, because your skin is trying to contract,” he says flatly, as if he’s observing himself from a distance. “So you have to constantly be stretching your joints, so that skin doesn’t tighten up to where you can’t bend any of your fingers or elbows or anything like that. They grab your fingers and bend them as far as you possibly can and hold it.”

D.J. Maser is invisible, as far as Wyoming OSHA is concerned. Because he was hurt but not killed, in an accident that did not hospitalize at least three workers, he’s not in the state’s OSHA stats. But he illustrates huge flaws in another branch of the workplace safety system: workers’ compensation insurance.

All states have workers’ comp as a basic workplace insurance program. While details vary state-to-state, the principle is simple and seemingly reasonable: Companies pay premiums to the program for each employee, and the program pays medical bills and some other costs arising from workplace accidents. Wyoming Workers’ Comp paid Maser’s medical bills, which were pricey. Otherwise, though, all he got from the system was a percentage of his pay for about 18 months (only about $270 per month, he says, because he made minimum wage), plus a settlement to cover his “impairment.”

Impairment is calculated with American Medical Association formulas, evaluating workers as you would a tool, strictly based on functionality. “If a banker and a concert pianist each lose two fingers, the banker can keep on banking, while the pianist is toast, but under the formulas, they have the same impairment,” says George Santini, a Cheyenne lawyer who specializes in workers’ comp. Since D.J., after intense therapy, recovered most of the use of his arms and hands, the formulas rated him 12 percent impaired, and the settlement was only $9,000.

Even through the sheetrock dust, I can see the reddish, leathery, wrinkled burn scars on his hands and arms. His fingernails grow strangely dented and contorted, because the nail beds were permanently damaged. He has more burn scars on his legs, and scars where skin was taken for grafts. He has to apply lotion to the scars frequently, trying to keep them supple. He has no sweat glands on his arms, so the rest of his body compensates; his palms are sweating right now.

His parents kept a bedside vigil for weeks at the burn unit. The shock and the long aftermath have been especially difficult for his father, D.J. Sr., who took six weeks off work to live with his son in the Ronald McDonald House associated with the Salt Lake City hospital. “My dad was more mentally scarred than I was. He still has a hard time with it,” says D.J. Jr. When I call D.J. Sr., he says he’s worrying about his son, who has struggled with substance abuse and been in and out of rehab several times. Lately D.J. Jr. was doing pretty well, but he fell off the wagon the weekend before I interviewed him.

Wyoming Workers’ Comp, like most states’ programs, pays nothing for physical or emotional pain and suffering. The Masers think that’s unfair. “There for a while, (the accident) completely altered my life,” says D.J. Jr.

The Masers pressed a lawsuit against L&H Welding, charging negligence. But the workers’ comp program includes a compromise: While it provides some benefits for accident victims, it makes the employers nearly immune to negligence lawsuits. The reasoning is, without protection for employers, the economy would collapse in a lawyers’ feeding frenzy over every workplace accident.

Each state’s legislature determines exactly how much immunity employers get, and courts weigh in, too. Utah’s Legislature passed a law last year providing wider immunity for employers, for example. In Wyoming, for decades the Legislature has favored employers, but every so often the state Supreme Court pushes back a bit for the workers. Once in a while, lawyers get traction and win sizable pots of money for victims and their families, but it happens rarely.

The Masers, though, believed they had a good chance in court. Federal regulations say some jobs are just too hazardous for 16- and 17-year-olds. The U.S. Department of Labor hit L&H Welding with the maximum penalty for violating child-labor regulations in regard to D.J. Jr. — a $10,000 fine, ultimately reduced to $6,750.

The Masers, and their lawyer, Clark Stith, saw the penalty as proof of negligence, and they sued and battled the company up to the state Supreme Court. But in 2000, the court demonstrated another Wyoming trait — resistance to anything federal. Wyoming law allows teens who are not yet adults to do some hazardous work, and the court held that state law trumps the feds on the child-labor issue. “If you are maimed or killed on the job in Wyoming because your employer violated a safety rule of the federal government, that’s just too bad,” says Stith, still dismayed by the ruling. “You can’t sue your employer (for that) in Wyoming.”

Since he regained the use of his hands, D.J. Jr. has been working pretty steadily, mostly on pipelines. About six months ago, his father quit a mining job and started the sheetrocking business, and they work together now with other family members. They’re putting in 12-hour days, six days a week, riding the home-construction boom that parallels the energy boom. Meanwhile, L&H Industrial Inc., as the company now calls itself, has continued to expand its services for oil and gas and mining, going global with shops scattered from South Africa to Canada.

“The way they have the laws set up,” D.J. Jr. says, “it’s just to protect Big Business’ ass, and to keep the rich rich and the workingman down.”

And in the gray area between federal and state laws, young Wyoming teens still find jobs in oil and gas. While investigating a recent oilfield fatality, for example, Wyoming OSHA observed a 17-year-old working in that oilfield. It forwarded the tip to the Wyoming Department of Labor, but that agency probably won’t do anything; it probably won’t even forward the tip to the federal Department of Labor, says an investigator at the state labor agency. The federal child-labor people are stretched so thin they won’t swoop into Wyoming unless a company shows a widespread pattern of hiring young teens, the investigator says.

“And for our agency,” the labor official notes, “there’s no way to extrapolate our jurisdiction to cover it.”