Not an “accident”: Ernesto Rodriguez, 41, suffers fatal work-related injuries at southern Oklahoma oil rig site

Ernesto Rodriguez, 41, suffered fatal traumatic injuries on Wednesday, September 10 while working at an oil rig site in southern Oklahoma. Local news reports provide some initial information on the worker’s death:

  • The incident occurred at an XTO Energy well near Mannsville, OK (about 2 hours north of Dallas, TX). Rodriguez was employed by Mercer Well Service. The company’s headquarters is in Gainseville, TX, which was also Rodriguez’s hometown.
  • Sheriff John Smith reported “that a pipe was somehow forced out of a well hole and struck Rodriguez.”
  • “Rodriguez was operating a workover rig drilling out frac plugs” when the blowout occurred. The sheriff reported that “the victim was knocked about 10 feet down a stairway due to the force of the blast.”  Two workers, who were in a rig basket situated just above where Rodriguez was working, witnessed the event.

Mercer Well Services has a history of violating worker safety regulations. Since 2009, the company has been the subject of 17 OSHA inspections, primarily in Texas (but none in Oklahoma.) For more than 20 violations, including four repeat and six serious, OSHA proposed $169,200 in penalties. (As a result of settlement agreements, the firm actually paid $83,925 for those infractions.) Following a November 2011 inspection at an oil drilling worksite in the Midland, TX area, Mercer received a citation for five repeat violations. OSHA said in a news release announcing the citations:

“Repeated disregard of employee safety will not be tolerated.”

Despite their illegal behavior, Mercer Well Services did not meet OSHA’s criteria for the designation “severe violator.” Now that Ernesto Rodriguez has been killed on the job, maybe now they will. (As I’ve said before, OSHA’s threshold for the “severe violator” label is too steep.)

Each year, dozens of workers in Oklahoma are fatally injured on-the-job. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 86 work-related fatal injuries in Oklahoma during 2013 (preliminary data, most recent available.) Nationwide, at least 4,405 workers suffered fatal traumatic injuries in 2013.

The AFL-CIO’s annual Death on the Job report notes:

  • Federal OSHA has 19 inspectors in Oklahoma to cover more than 90,000 workplaces.
  • The average penalty for a serious OSHA violation in Oklahoma is $1,872.

Federal OSHA has until mid-March 2015 to issue any citations and penalties related to the incident that stole Ernesto Rodriguez’s life. It’s likely they’ll determine that Rodriguez’s death was preventable. It was no “accident.”