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

Page 2

He started working as a ranch-hand when he was 15 and got into breaking colts and riding saddle broncs. But when he was 22, the ranch was sold, and the best-paying jobs he could find were in the oil and gas fields. He’s been working there for about 30 years, keeping a few horses on the side. Kaylee is a special-diet cook in a mental hospital. They’re empty-nesters, with two grown daughters and one grown son, Preston. Preston, they explain, dreamed of college, but went to work on drilling rigs right out of high school, aiming to save money for his education. He bought a truck with his first paycheck and never got ahead of his bills. About to turn 31, with a wife and four kids, he still works side-by-side with Bill, on a rig owned by Nabors Industries Ltd., the world’s largest drilling company. The rig is set up about a hundred miles south of here, and they work seven days in a row, living in one of the trailer-like dorms called "man-camps." Then they come home for seven days.

Bill and Kaylee take me upstairs and show me the saddle that belonged to their younger son, Colton. They explain how much Colton loved horses, too; like the time Colton decided that for his 16th birthday, he wanted to adopt a wild mare that had been rounded up by the federal government. With Bill giving advice, Colton broke the mare to saddles, then proudly showed his mother, riding it while dragging a bale of hay. Bill points out the rust-colored mare standing behind a fence in the back yard. "Just a BLM junker," he says, but Colton made something of it.

They tell more tales of Colton’s life, his passion for hunting and fishing and four-wheeling. He wanted to become a long-haul trucker, but went to work on the rigs right after high school, and then got married. His branch of the family grew to include his own infant son and a stepdaughter. He worked on rigs for about six years. "It’s a paycheck," Kaylee says. "Nothing else pays so good without a college degree."

On Feb. 14, 2006, Colton left his man-camp about a hundred miles to the north and began a night shift on a rig owned by Patterson-UTI Energy, the world’s second-biggest drilling company. It was 10 degrees or so, with snow on the ground. About 9 p.m., he was working apart from the rest of the crew, in the substructure below the driller’s floor, on a grated walkway amid a clutter of girders and pipes, chains and cables. Apparently he was searching for tools. He fell off the walkway and landed 26 feet below, in the steel-and-dirt cellar, suffering fatal head injuries, Wyoming worker safety investigators found that several factors contributed to the accident. Colton Bryant was wearing a hard hat but no "fall-protection" (that is, a harness that can be attached to anchor points). The company had trained him to wear fall-protection anywhere the drop would be six feet or greater. But in the tight spaces beneath the rig floor it "was not all that practical" to use fall-protection, because he "could not actually move any great distance before (he) would have to reposition the tie-off point," the agency noted. Others in the crew said it was "a gray area" where they also sometimes went without fall-protection.

Perhaps more telling, at the point where Colton fell the walkway had no "adequate" railing (the safety cops didn’t explain the inadequacy), and part of the walkway had no railing at all.

The state agency — which calls itself in shorthand Wyoming OSHA, mimicking the federal agency — concluded Patterson-UTI had violated several safety regulations and fined the firm $7,031. Bill and Kaylee believe the company was negligent. "It’s pretty rotten," Kaylee says. "There should’ve been a railing where Colton was at; if there was a railing, he would’ve been saved."

They show me photos of Colton’s life, flowing one to the next on a DVD that was prepared for a memorial service. As it plays on a computer on the dining room table — 4-year-old Colton on a horse, Colton rafting the Snake River — shot by shot growing him into a man with an impish grin, Kaylee stands, and for a moment, she’s crying quietly. "Sorry," she says. "This means a lot to me, this little round disk."

Bill can’t watch it straight through; I hear the floor creaking as he paces the room, back and forth, occasionally coming up to the screen, looking at whatever picture is there, then pacing away.

Tomorrow, they’ll mark the one-year anniversary of Colton’s death by driving to Las Vegas for a Dolly Parton concert and a few days of what Kaylee calls "a different atmosphere." Then they’ll come home, and Bill and Preston will go back to work, seven days on and seven off, at the Nabors rig.

In the manner of many a modern big business, Patterson-UTI was formed by a merger of two companies; since that 2001 combination, it’s swallowed other companies and assets. Fair to say, it’s been a troubled firm. Beginning in 2001, its chief financial officer ran a phony invoice scheme, embezzling $77 million, according to the FBI. With the skim, he bought multiple homes, a cattle ranch, an airport and 10 aircraft, artwork, jewelry, more than $1 million of boats, about 200 vehicles, and dozens of motorcycles, RVs and other toys. Last November, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Reform-trumpeting executives have run Patterson-UTI since 2005, and Forbes magazine now calls it one of the 400 Best Big Companies in America. By one dark score, it apparently is the leading drilling company: At least 20 of its workers have died in on-the-job accidents since 2001; six fatal accidents occurred in 2006 alone. The toll spurred the federal OSHA to alert local safety agencies to take a harder look at Patterson-UTI operations. But neither the OSHA alert nor the mounting death toll has been widely reported.

A railing for the walkway from which Bryant fell to his death might’ve cost a thousand dollars for steel and a welder’s touch. Patterson-UTI, which has about 300 drilling rigs operating in the U.S. and Canada, made a record profit the year he died — $673 million.

Kaylee explains why she agreed to go through Colton’s story with me: "I just hope it does some good for other families." She advises those who consider sending a loved one into the oil and gas fields: "Keep ’em out of it." She sums up some companies' philosophy, with no audible commas: "A big fat wallet."

When I get back into my car to leave, she stands on the porch and says, “You drive safely now, for the rest of your trip.”


Similar fatal facts and themes can be pulled from the closets of any oil-and-gas state. On the it-runs-in-the-family track, for example: Two 19-year-old men were killed in oil and gas accidents in Colorado last November, and both their fathers work in the industry. A Utah man killed in a well explosion in 2002 had a son who died in a rig accident five years earlier. And so on.

I decided to focus on energy-worker deaths in Wyoming because it’s a state absolutely dominated by the oil and gas industry. Wyoming has the fewest people of all the states — about a half-million — but it produces the most energy of any, measured in total BTUs of oil, gas and coal. The state’s population rises with each energy boom and falls with each bust, a collective inhale and exhale.

A single drilling site involves many companies and crews. The operator (the likes of a Shell or an EnCana) owns or leases the mineral rights under a particular piece of ground, the drilling company brings in the rig, and all the various Halliburtons of the oil patch pass through to pump fluids in and out of the hole to lubricate and control the drilling. Add the companies that supply the specialty equipment and consultants, the truckers that haul waste fluids and gravel and other necessities, the welders and the electricians, and the myriad service providers that combine to get the oil and gas flowing initially, and then tote up the echelons of maintenance companies that come back to the hole again and again to keep it flowing. Multiply this by tens of thousands of wells scattered across the state, roll in thousands of miles of pipelines, and add on the refineries and processing plants that are as large as cities, and you have some idea of the size of oil and gas in Wyoming.

The machinery in and around a drilling rig can hurt or kill from just about any angle. The big drilling rigs have derricks as tall as a 15-story building; workers lean off small platforms at the top and at intervals along the rise. The rig’s “floor,” where most people work, might be 30 to 40 feet off the ground. Massive pulleys run up and down on cables and winches, lifting sections of pipe that must be screwed together or unscrewed. When a drill bit needs sharpening or something goes wrong in the hole, a rig must lift the entire weight of the “drill string” — all the pipe in the hole, which might extend more than four miles underground. The load on the rig’s pulleys and derrick can run as much as a million pounds.

Workers get crushed by rig collapses, they fall off the steel ledges and the maze of catwalks and ladders and walkways, they get caught in spinning chains, winches and cables. Sometimes they get strangled by their own fall-protection harnesses. On or off the rigs, they handle flammables, and sometimes they get fireballed. They succumb to poisonous hydrogen sulfide, which occurs in natural gas before it’s processed; one whiff is fatal. They get slammed by valves and pipes that explode under high pressure. They get hit by lightning, freeze to death and die of heat stroke, because the work takes place outside, and it goes on 24/7, 365 days a year, pretty much no matter what.

They also get blown up, as Marsha Iriberry, her brother, Mitchell, and their mother, Anita, explain while they take me on a tour of the methane fields west of a small, all-by-itself Wyoming town named Wright. They’re three heavy people, munching Cheetos and teriyaki jerky while wedged into a green Ford Escape that has three rock pings in the windshield and a Tasmanian Devil figurine on the dashboard. They’re telling me the state’s report on Marsha’s accident underestimated the distance she flew.

"I think she was blown at least 100 feet!" Anita insists.

"More like 200 feet," Marsha says. "It just depended on who measured it. Some of the EMTs told me it was between 100 and 200 feet."

The accident occurred about noon on Sunday, April 6, 2003. Marsha had quit a hardware-store job to work as a “pumper,” driving a pickup around the fields, checking tank gauges, and making sure compressors kept the methane flowing. She was paired with Debra Zeleny, who came from a background in waitressing and grocery clerking. That Sunday, during a bout of springtime sleet, they got an order by cell phone: Go to an intersection of pipelines and help unstick a "pig."

Pigs are hard rubber implements —- sometimes balls, sometimes other shapes — that fit tightly into pipelines and are then propelled by gas pressure. They are used to scrape water and other residue off the internal surfaces of pipes, to increase flow and reduce corrosion. But a pig can get stuck in a pipe, and when that happens, someone in the pipeline control room throttles up the gas pressure behind the pig, and workers along the pipeline open valves to lower the pressure in front of it, hoping to encourage the pig to resume its travel.

Iriberry and Zeleny reached their assigned valve station, a mass of plumbing sticking up from the dirt in the middle of nowhere. The pipeline, buried seven feet below, was 12 inches in diameter. The control room, 12 miles away, increased the upstream pressure to more than 700 pounds per square inch. The women leaned over the iron wheel that rotated the valve, and began to turn it, releasing pressure on their end, downstream of the pig.

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