by Elizabeth Grossman
As Congress nears recess, legislative approval of the Keystone XL pipeline is still a possibility. Congressional Republicans and the American Petroleum Institute have said the Keystone XL pipeline could create 20,000 new jobs, as has the Teamsters union. House Speaker John Boehner has said "tens of thousands" of jobs would be created. The State Department estimate comes in at between 5,000 and 6,000, and a report from Cornell University's Global Labor Institute concludes that the pipeline could ultimately "kill more jobs than it creates," since most of the pipeline construction jobs would be temporary and costs of responding to related environmental health effects would lead to job cuts. Whatever the actual number, something I haven't seen discussed is the safety of the jobs that would be associated with such a pipeline.
Pipeline-related jobs would involve not only oil and gas extraction, but also pipeline construction and installation, work that would involve welding, trench-digging, drilling, and much heavy equipment operation. The top 10 workplace safety standards violated in 2010 are all common to this work. At a time of tight budgets, when construction and production jobs are also often under time constraints, and when funding for the agencies that oversee workplace safety is also limited, this is a particularly important consideration, especially given this work's inherent hazards.
Deaths on the job
To get a sense of how hazardous work in the oil and gas industry is, it's useful to consult numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics - while being aware of their limitations. Occupational fatality figures come from the BLS Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, and do not yet include revised figures for 2010.
With that caveat, here are the BLS totals of fatal occupational injuries in the oil and gas industry (oil and gas extraction and support activities, plus oil and gas pipeline and related structures construction, pipeline transportation, and oil and gas field machinery and equipment manufacturing) for the past three years:
Fatal injuries in the oil and gas industry typically include transportation incidents, injuries caused by encounters with equipment, and fires and explosions. According to the BLS, the states with the highest number of fatal work injuries in the oil and gas extraction industry in 2008 were Texas (41), Oklahoma (21), and Louisiana (13). Also according to the BLS, between 2004 and 2008, fatal work injuries in this industry have increased 91 percent in Oklahoma, while rising by 30 percent in Louisiana and by 21 percent in Texas.
The non-fatal injury records, drawn from the BLS Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses, are also limited in what they convey. Not all injuries are "recordable," and the survey figures rely on employer records that may be incomplete and exclude very small businesses. These records also will not reflect chronic or slow-to-manifest illnesses workers may develop as a result of exposure to hazardous chemicals or physical irritants that can cause lung diseases, as can various kinds of dust.
According to a BLS summary for the industry, in 2007 there were 4,200 non-fatal injuries reported for workers directly involved in oil and gas drilling, a number that does not include workers engaged in support work, such as construction and transportation. Causes of injuries cited by the BLS include workers being struck by objects and workers being caught in objects, equipment or material.
The non-fatal injury rate BLS calculated in 2007 for oil and gas extraction workers was 4.6 per 100 full-time workers, which is slightly higher than the overall national rate of 4.2 per 100 full-time workers for all industries. BLS also points out that while the oil and gas industry may not have a remarkably high rate of non-fatal injuries when compared to other industry sectors, it does have a significantly higher than average median rate of injuries that result in days away from work, an indication of these injuries' severity. BLS cites fractures as one example, injuries that typically have a long recovery time. In 2007, the oil and gas well drilling industry's median days away from work was 30, while the median for all industries that year was 7.
Long shifts and few inspections
A Centers for Disease Control (CDC) analysis of fatalities among oil and gas workers found that long shifts and fatigue have played a significant role in such incidents, particularly where motor vehicles are concerned. In a 2008 report, the CDC notes that
Although highway crashes are the most common fatal event in U.S. industries overall, certain aspects of highway crashes in oil and gas extraction create the need for further study and targeted interventions. Vehicles used in oil and gas extraction are exempt from certain U.S. Department of Transportation hours-of-service regulations. Truck drivers and workers in pickup trucks often travel between oil and gas wells located on rural highways, which often lack firm road shoulders, rumble strips, and, occasionally, pavement. Workers often are on 8- or 12-hour shifts, working 7-14 days in a row. Fatigue has been identified as an important risk factor in motor-vehicle crashes; therefore, a targeted program that addresses fatigue among workers in this 24-hour industry might reduce motor-vehicle crashes and fatalities.
In addition, according to information supplied by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) in the past year, OSHA conducted only 1% of its inspections in the mining and extraction industry - a total of 483 in 2010: 214 inspections of oil and gas well drilling; 188 inspections of support activity for oil and gas extraction operations, and 61 inspections of crude petroleum and natural gas extraction operations. In contrast, OSHA conducted 58% of its 2010 inspections in construction and 20% in manufacturing.
The Congressional supporters of the Keystone XL pipeline who are promoting it as a job-creator are also advocating anti-regulatory policies that could make such oil and gas industry jobs more dangerous than they already are. Among these is the REINS Act, (Regulations from the Executive In Need of Scrutiny Act) passed by the House that would make it impossible for federal agencies to adopt regulations that enforce laws - including the Occupational Health and Safety Act - without Congressional approval.
Whether or not the Keystone XL pipeline proceeds, anyone going to work on any kind of energy infrastructure should be confident that they will be safe on the job. Current numbers on workplace injuries tell us we still have a long way to go in keeping oil and gas workers safe.
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.