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Flaws Found In OSHA Severe Violator Enforcement Program

Mon, 03/10/2014 - 11:08am
LISE OLSEN, Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON (AP) — If Shannon Hardy had known about all the safety violations and all the roughnecks killed at Robinson Drilling rigs, she would have tried to talk her son, Chase Dillon, out of taking his first real job there just out of high school.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration keeps a list of "the worst of the worst" employers in the nation — the Severe Violator Enforcement Program — and drilling companies with multiple fatalities should be on it, safety experts say.

But on the day nearly two years ago when Dillon suffered an electric shock, fell and broke his neck, Robinson Drilling of Texas wasn't on the list. And it has never been added, even though the Permian Basin company reported five fatal accidents and racked up two dozen safety violations from 2010 to 2012.

Now, each time Hardy hears an oil field commercial aimed at recruiting young Texans like her son, the Lubbock resident gets angry.

"They make it sound wonderful: 'You don't need any experience. You're going to make all this money,'" Hardy told the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1g977en). "I don't think anybody knows all the risks that are involved."

OSHA created the Severe Violator Enforcement Program four years ago to focus resources and public scrutiny on companies that kill workers and willfully and repeatedly ignore safety requirements. But a Houston Chronicle investigation has found that the program, which OSHA says lists the "worst of the worst," includes none of the Texas oil and gas companies that have reported multiple fatalities.

"There's something wrong with a worst violator program where the companies that have killed the most people are not on the list, and they do need to fix that," said John Newquist, a former OSHA assistant regional administrator from Chicago.

The severe violator program is a revised version of what had been called the Enhanced Enforcement Program, under which employers' names were kept secret.

But the Chronicle, during its review of hundreds of accident cases, found that the new program's focus on "repeat" and "willful" violations has resulted in companies avoiding the list. OSHA supervisors have considerable latitude in assessing those terms, and the program more strongly targets other industries, such as construction.

Jordan Barab, assistant secretary of labor for OSHA who helped create the program, said he agreed that the Chronicle's analysis revealed flaws. He said he wanted to find out more about why employers reporting the most U.S. oil field fatalities avoided being listed.

"There's perhaps a reason to consider whether they should be included," Barab said, declining to comment on individual companies. "We're always looking for ways to make sure that those companies that deserve the most attention get the most attention. We have to balance — if we get too many companies into the (Severe Violator Enforcement Program) it kind of defeats the purpose."

Robinson Drilling has avoided inclusion but heavily invested in safety after the deaths of Dillon and other workers, voluntarily making improvements beginning in 2011 that are beyond what OSHA could require.

"Please be assured that (Robinson) is extremely concerned with the well-being of our employees and has put tremendous effort and resources into the safety of our operations," Robert L. "Luke" Crownover, a managing partner of Robinson, said in a statement.

Under pressure from lawsuits, regulators and its own customers, Robinson has hired a former high-ranking OSHA official as its safety director, retired some of its oldest rigs, implemented an inspection program, created a six-member safety team and ramped up drug testing.

Robinson has had no fatal accidents since 2012 and has been under a new ownership structure since 2013 after family members battled in court over the company's future, Howard County court records show.

Few troubled companies can be counted on to make similar improvements without enforcement action, said Eric Frumin, a prominent worker safety expert who participated in congressional debates on OSHA enforcement programs.

Frumin said the Chronicle's finding that no oil field employer associated with multiple deaths is on the OSHAlist suggests that regulators lack tools to properly identify potentially dangerous violators and respond to far-flung oil field accidents.

"(Some) companies do terrible things, and they're getting away with it, and it's revealing the difficulties that OSHA has with the tools at its command to put a stop to it," said Frumin, director of health and safety for the Change to Win Federation in New York City. "They're at the limits of their powers here."

In its yearlong investigation of workers' deaths and injuries in Texas' oil and gas fields, the Chronicle found that the federal government has failed for 22 years to implement safety standards and procedures for onshore oil and gas drilling. Records and interviews revealed a clear double standard between those onshore platforms and offshore oil sites, where all injury-related accidents — as well as fires, explosions and spills — are much more stringently regulated and investigated by the Coast Guard or by the Interior Department's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

At onshore oil and gas drilling sites, OSHA only investigates accidents where someone dies or three or more people are hospitalized — the same standard it applies to workplaces from fast food restaurants to construction sites.

In 2012, the Chronicle found, Texas reported the most oil field-related deaths in a decade with 65, about 60 percent more than in 2011. Nationwide, there have been more than 660 reported fatalities since 2007, 40 percent of which occurred in Texas.

Despite this surging death toll, the Severe Violator Enforcement Program does not include any of the Texas oil and gas companies that have reported multiple fatalities and none of six that had reported 10 or more fatal accidents to OSHA nationwide from 2007-2012, either through a single company or interrelated subsidiaries.

Currently, 365 companies are on the list OSHA posted in January. Twenty-five of those, mostly construction firms, are in Texas.

Newquist, the former OSHA assistant regional administrator who studied oil field deaths before retiring in 2012, found those holes troubling. "You're talking about a sector that's killing 50 to 100 people a year (nationwide) — and you maybe ought to put them in there," he said of those oil and gas companies that have suffered workplace fatalities.

In Texas, eight oil and gas employers reported three or more fatal accidents since 2007, according to a Chronicle analysis of OSHA enforcement actions. All eight were fined for serious violations in subsequent fatal accident investigations.

But only two of those companies also were initially cited for so-called "repeat" violations — Robinson Drilling and Patterson-UTI Drilling Co. OSHA must find either "repeat" or "willful" violations to list a company in the severe violators' program.

Neither Robinson nor Patterson-UTI ever were listed.

Back in the days of the George W. Bush administration, Patterson-UTI, the giant drilling company based in the West Texas town of Snyder, was included in OSHA's Enhanced Enforcement Program, the forerunner to its current severe violators list.

The program's days were numbered after the Labor Department's inspector general blasted OSHA in a 2009 report for failing to adequately track and address employers responsible for multiple deaths. In that report, the inspector general revealed that both Patterson-UTI and BP Products North America Inc. had been listed, even though the practice at the time was not to reveal the names of companies in the program.

BP Products was targeted for enhanced enforcement after reporting 18 deaths from 2003 to 2008, including victims of the 2005 Texas City refinery explosion, the report said. In response, OSHA officials inspected BP refineries nationwide.

Patterson-UTI was included after OSHA found violations in six of 12 fatalities reported by the company between 2003 and 2008, according to the report.

It was partially in response to that report that OSHA abolished the old program, arguing that it was too hard to administer, given its size and scarcity of resources.

Both BP and Patterson-UTI have continued to suffer workplace fatalities. But neither has ever been put on the new list.

In BP's case, the lack of inclusion, in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in which 11 workers died, is directly tied to where that accident took place — offshore, where far more stringent safety regulation is in place. The accident was investigated by multiple federal agencies and a special task force. The company was severely sanctioned, and OSHA's severe violators list never came into play.

In Patterson-UTI's case, the lack of inclusion is more complex.

OSHA launched its revamped severe violators program in 2010. Not only would violators be publicly named, but the new program would de-emphasize the importance of multiple deaths involving the same employer and focus more on employers that had repeat or willful violations. Those changes were meant to allow OSHA to focus limited resources on companies that both killed workers and appeared to ignore laws, said Barab.

The same year that list began, Patterson-UTI was initially cited for one repeat and two serious safety violations after an employee was killed in November 2010 in the booming Eagle Ford shale play.

"The seriousness of these hazards is simply not an acceptable condition," said Michael Rivera, OSHA's area director in Corpus Christi, in a press release that announced a proposed penalty of $53,900.

The Chronicle asked OSHA officials in Texas to review the citation containing the "repeat" violation and explain why it did not require that Patterson-UTI be placed on the severe violators list. The reason, according to OSHAspokeswoman Diana Petterson: An OSHA supervisor determined that the repeat violation was not directly connected to the death and therefore did not trigger a "severe violator" listing.

That fatality occurred when the employee, setting up a drilling rig, was struck and killed when a section of track used on the derrick's drive system broke away. OSHA found two serious violations related to the track. But the alleged "repeat" violation, which involved a failure to protect workers from fall hazards, was deemed unrelated to the death.

Patterson-UTI contested the citation, and the repeat violation was subsequently reduced to "serious" when the case was settled in May 2011. The company paid a $21,000 penalty.

In an email to the Chronicle, Patterson-UTI noted that it does not belong in the Severe Violator Enforcement Program. The company said that the program is for "employers who have demonstrated indifference to their (OSHA) obligations by committing willful, repeated, or failure-to-abate violations . Patterson-UTI is not, and has never been, indifferent to its (OSHA) obligations."

Patterson-UTI described its safety record as "significantly improved" and its accident rate as "above average" for the land-based drilling industry. Patterson-UTI said it has invested more than $150 million on training and equipment to improve workplace safety in the last decade.

The company has revamped its leadership, training and recruiting programs in a long-term effort to change its safety culture, officials said.

"Since 2008, Patterson-UTI has continuously worked to improve its safety processes," the company said. "We have reorganized and restructured our safety department (and) implemented a comprehensive, consistent safety management system, which has been communicated to our employees and includes comprehensive audits and inspections."

In June 2011, at Robinson Drilling Rig No. 3 near Lamesa, floor hands Jason Bolt and his best friend, Sandy Daves, were killed when defective equipment malfunctioned, came apart and struck them, public records show. Bolt survived only minutes. Daves was taken by ambulance to a Lubbock hospital, where he died, OSHA and court records show. Bolt left behind two children. Daves had seven.

Another worker had died the year before after an equipment failure on the same antiquated oil derrick.

Rig workers who witnessed the 2010 and 2011 deaths later testified in depositions that the rig itself was outdated and that prior to both accidents workers had to use sledge hammers — unsafe procedures — to keep faulty drilling equipment running. That information is part of two civil lawsuits filed by Bolt's father, Dennis Bolt, and other family members.

Bolt cannot understand why Robinson has not been included in the Severe Violator Enforcement Program. Equipment failures on the same rig and unsafe practices contributed to both fatal accidents. How can those not be considered "repeat" violations? he asked.

"They ought to be (listed)," he said. "A rig that has that many fatalities should be scrutinized and driven to the wall by OSHA."

Robinson Drilling was initially cited by OSHA for 23 infractions — four labeled as "repeat" violations in an OSHA inspection after the 2011 double fatality.

"Two workers lost their lives because Robinson Drilling allowed serious hazards to exist in the workplace," Joann Figueroa, OSHA's area director in El Paso, said in a press release. "It is the employer's responsibility to follow OSHA standards and ensure that work environments are free from all unnecessary hazards."

Again, the Chronicle asked OSHA officials in Texas to review the citations in which inspectors found repeat violations and explain why they did not require that Robinson be placed on the severe violators list. Again, the agency's Petterson explained: An OSHA supervisor determined that the repeat violations were not directly connected to the deaths and therefore did not trigger a "severe violator" listing.

The November 2011 OSHA citation in the deaths of Bolt and Daves said the repeat violations involved more generic safety issues, such as failure to ensure that employees had respirators. Robinson was able to get all of the repeat violations removed in negotiations with OSHA, and the fine was reduced from $93,700 to $46,000.

Most companies, whether Fortune 500 giants or family-owned firms, routinely fight OSHA's enforcement actions through negotiations or litigation. They fight longer and harder when there is any chance they might be labeled a "severe violator," an internal OSHA evaluation shows.

In the two years before Chase Dillon's death in 2012, OSHA inspected Robinson Drilling eight times and proposed 45 violations, though that tally was reduced to 30 after the company challenged citations.

At Robinson, inspectors found repeated failures to ensure electrical panels were properly guarded or that grounding rods had been installed to reduce risk of electrocution, among other things.

Neither Dillon nor his mother knew about all those problems before Dillon's fatal day on a rig near Big Lake. The accident occurred July 27, 2012, when he climbed an 8-foot ladder, reached up with a knife in his gloved hand to cut twine used to suspend a cable to the rig, and suffered the electric shock, according to Reagan County Sheriff Jeff Garner and an autopsy report. Dillon fell and broke his neck.

The 21-year-old was vomiting and unconscious when a crew of volunteer firefighters arrived and began CPR. He stopped breathing on the 20-mile ambulance ride to rural Reagan County Memorial Hospital.

Shannon Hardy said no Robinson official contacted her when her son died and she "was so angry at Robinson for them not taking any responsibility."

After Dillon's death, OSHA cited Robinson for two more serious violations — but again inspectors found no repeat violations involving electrical problems that could have triggered a severe violators' listing.

Robinson company officials said they could not comment on individual deaths because of pending litigation, but Crownover, part of the company's revamped management team, emphasized that it has responded to its safety problems. "We have worked very hard to make sure Robinson Drilling is a place that people want to work. Everybody on the team is committed to making the well-being of our employees the number one priority."

The company settled the OSHA matter in an administrative court by paying a $14,000 fine last year.

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