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 6

Clouds of fog drift just out of reach as I drive across the Big Horn Basin and through some of Wyoming’s oldest oilfields, begun in the 1920s and pumping ever since. It’s the type of fog that allows me to see a limited stretch of road ahead and no more, enough to lure me to drive too fast. I pass pumpjacks and a pipeline being laid and plants that process oil and gas, then I come into Worland — population 5,250 — and follow the directions Duane and Diana Riedel gave me. I turn at one church, then at another, and park in front of a modest split-level house.

They invite me in, obviously not quite knowing what to make of me, but they also have decided it’s worth the risk of talking. Duane is in his 27th year of teaching math in Worland schools. Diana is a receptionist at a doctor’s office.

We begin to discuss their oldest son, Josh. He grew up in Worland and, through hard work more than talent, became a star at Worland High School, playing for Warriors teams in track and field, soccer, basketball, and his best sport, football. In 1999, the statewide Casper Star-Tribune named Josh Riedel one of Wyoming’s top 25 high-school football players, and in 2000, the year he graduated, he won more statewide honors.

His dream was to become an airline pilot. He attended Rocky Mountain College Aviation School in Billings for two years and played college football. Then, because the family could no longer afford the $25,000 annual cost of the aviation school, he transferred to the University of Wyoming. Shaking off disappointment, he went to Florida, looking for an adventure, and got college credits while working as a lifeguard at Disney World. He liked Florida and planned to finish college there. But he came back to Worland for one more summer to build up his savings, working in oil and gas. “He never planned to stay around Worland,” Diana says. “There’s not a lot for the kids to do here, other than go into the oilfields.”

On July 23, 2004, Josh Riedel was working on a drilling rig near Pinedale. He had three weeks on the job, and it was a night crew. They were “tripping pipe” into the hole — that is, adding sections of pipe to go deeper. A couple of pipes wouldn’t thread together, and as they worked on that problem, the driller accidentally engaged the “breakout tongs,” 500-pound jaws for grabbing the pipes. Some of the men heard “a loud bang” and a scream as the tongs slammed into Josh Riedel, swept him upward, six feet off the rig floor, and pinned him there, against steel.

More than 350 people attended the memorial service in Worland, overflowing Grace Lutheran Church; they had to set up chairs outside to accommodate everyone.

Companies number their rigs: The one that killed Josh Riedel was Nabors #521. Wyoming OSHA investigators found that the driller and others in the crew on rig 521 were inexperienced, that fatigue was a factor in the accident, and that control valves and levers on the driller’s panel were improperly installed, making it easy for the driller to make the mistake with the tongs. The driller said he’d been “nervous” operating the rig because of its many marginal, pieced-together components.

Wyoming OSHA negotiated with Nabors over corrective actions, then fined the company $625. Outraged, Duane and Diana went to the Worland newspaper, and the Associated Press picked up the story. Wyoming OSHA raised the fine to $1,875. Once the accident made repair a priority, it took the company only a few days to fix the faulty control, Duane says.

Then in 2006, on the same rig, another man got killed in an accident with a “chain tong” that gripped the pipes. Wyoming OSHA found the tongs operator wasn’t supposed to be on the controls; he’d just been demoted for making mistakes. Many in that crew were inexperienced, and the rig had other broken parts. The fine in this case: $8,750.

Along with its generally good reputation for safety, which includes running its own drillers’ school, Nabors has more than 600 rigs around the world. The company moved its headquarters from Houston to Bermuda in 2002, in part to lessen its federal tax exposure, and since then its annual profits have soared, topping $1.4 billion last year. The company gave the Riedels $6,000, they say to help pay for Josh’s funeral. Wyoming Workers’ Comp paid the standard funeral benefit, $10,000.

The Riedels are suing, alleging negligence and wrongful death. They say they’re battling for a principle — those who are responsible should admit it — and they’ll use any proceeds to set up a scholarship fund in Josh’s name for Worland High grads who go to college.

But because of the workers’ comp immunity shield for Josh’s employer, they have to try an indirect shot: They’re suing Questar Exploration and Production Company, the operator that hired Nabors to drill the well, and other companies linked to the workplace, as well as individual Nabors bosses. These types of bank shots are sometimes all that the system leaves. (The Lasters in Gillette are pressing a similar lawsuit against individual bosses at Tyvo LLC.) But they can alienate judges and juries.

And the Riedels have hit yet another obstacle: Nabors requires its employees to sign a dispute resolution agreement saying such complaints must be taken to arbitration, instead of court. The companies’ lawyers say Josh Riedel signed such a paper, and so an arbitrator appointed by the American Arbitration Association or Judicial and Mediation Services must decide who is right. The Riedels’ lawyer, Robert Tiedekin, says, “Corporate America uses arbitration agreements more and more. I view them as very one-sided deals. They’re an effort to take away the constitutional rights of their employees to have jury trials.” He’s trying to keep the Riedels’ case going in state court.

Duane and Diana sit down in their living room, where a beautiful stained-glass window piece depicts sunrise over Cloud Peak, Josh’s favorite hike in the nearby Big Horn mountains. They show me the video of his memorial service, and the brochure for it, which has a drawing of Devils Tower National Monument. (Josh climbed it, on an expedition with his pastor.) They show me a video of the time Josh went skydiving in Florida. Another parachutist held the camera, and Josh looks tentative at the door of the plane. Then he leaps, and as he plummets with the airspeed ripping him, he’s grinning.

The Riedels have another obligation, and I go with them to the Worland Community Center gym, where their youngest son, 12-year-old Matthew, is playing in a basketball tournament. The Worland boys got thrashed, 60-10, by Riverton, in the morning game. Now they’re playing another small town, Cody. The gym is intimate, allowing room for about two dozen parents, on two rows of bleachers wedged between the court and the wall. Worland hardly has uniforms, just black T-shirts, black shorts and gray jerseys, while the Cody boys wear bright, blue-and-white shirts and shorts, with their numbers in gold. The Cody boys are more agile and accurate, and at halftime, they are up 20-10. In the second half, Cody intercepts a pass and runs a fast break, and it’s 24-12.

Matthew Riedel comes off the Worland bench — a row of yellow plastic chairs — for brief bursts of playing time. He’s tall and gangly for his age and looks sweet; he has curly hair. “Josh looked similar at this age, except he had straight hair,” Diana says. Matthew gets a rebound, and his mother hoots encouragement. One of Worland’s coaches works in the oilfields, Duane confides. Knowing I’m interested, Duane also tells me about the time his own brother was working on a drilling rig in North Dakota and fell out of the crow’s nest, a 90-foot drop. Somehow all he got was a broken ankle, a broken wrist, a broken elbow, and some lingering back trouble. A miracle. Even Duane worked one summer in the local oilfields, and he says that when he retires from teaching in a few years, he may go back, for the money.

The Worland boys valiantly manage a couple of baskets. Matthew wrestles the ball from an opponent, dribbles down court and lofts up a tall arcing shot — his parents holding their breaths — but it goes too high, bouncing on the top edge of the backboard and falling out of bounds. “Oh my goodness!” Diana says.

A Cody boy blows past Matthew and sinks another shot. “At least it’s better than this morning,” Diana says. The Worland boys are going to lose this game, too, but they’re not giving up. “Defense!” Diana yells, cupping her hands around her mouth as a megaphone. “Deeeefense!”


NOTE a sidebar lists the fatalities in Western states during the period 2000-2006.


Ray Ring, covering the Northern Rockies from his base in Bozeman, Mont., noticed a string of fatal accidents in the region’s oil and gas industry in 2005 and 2006. As he looked further, he found more accidents and a pattern of underreporting by news media, oil and gas companies and worker-safety agencies.

During months of subsequent reporting, Ring filed more than two dozen federal and state freedom-of-information requests for records and statistics from worker-safety agencies in seven states and Washington, D.C. In the end, he gathered safety agency investigative reports — or as they’re sometimes known, narratives — on more than 100 accidents. He also reviewed dozens of lawsuits and countless other documents and interviewed a wide variety of agency officials, lawyers, academics, industry leaders and, of course, workers and families whose lives have been irrevocably changed by injury and death in the oil and gas fields of the Mountain West.

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