This week, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board released a 158-page report on the fatal gas well blowout at the Pryor Trust well in Oklahoma in January 2018. The thorough investigation includes just about everything readers want to know about why the blast happened and how five men ended up dead.
There was just one thing missing: the names of those men.
The omission didn’t slip past Tonya Ford, the director of United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities, which assists and advocates for people whose loved ones died on the job.
“I was kind of shocked when I was reading it,” Ford told HuffPost. “I’ve been waiting for this [report] to come out. The names were left out. They were just known as ‘workers.’ Why were they left out?”
Ford’s surprise is understandable. The CSB investigates chemical industrial accidents to find their root causes and help to make sure they don’t happen again. Stretching back to 2016, the reports CSB produced on incidents involving fatalities have included a dedication page at the very beginning, listing the names of everyone who died.
Such was the case in the five fatality reports preceding Pryor Trust. The report delving into the 2013 explosion in West, Texas, which was released three years ago, includes a devastating memoriam page listing the 15 people killed, including a dozen first responders.
In the case of Pryor Trust, the lack of names was not an oversight but a deliberate decision, explained Hillary Cohen, a CSB spokeswoman.
The agency, which is independent from the White House, recently changed its policy so that workers will not be identified with dedications. Cohen said that while the agency’s leaders believe it is “important to honor, respect and remember” the dead, they now feel that memoriams are inappropriate because they could suggest someone was to blame for what happened.
“Our mission is not to determine blame, fault of liability of individuals, parties or organizations, connected with the investigation,” Cohen said via email. “Placing the names of individuals that were fatally injured as a result of the incident and dedicating the report to them may infer culpability on the part of the entity responsible for the operation of the facility where the incident occurred.”
Cohen said the agency has a family assistance program and works closely with relatives in the course of their investigations.
The agency’s explanation isn’t going over well with workplace safety advocates.
“Our loved ones are not statistics. They’re not numbers,” said Ford, whose uncle, Bobby Fitch, died in a grain elevator fall. “They have families that they left behind ― and they should be recognized.”
She added, “I don’t understand how that puts anyone to blame, by giving a loved one’s name. How is that blaming an individual or a company for the fatality?”
Celeste Monforton, who lectures on occupational health and safety at George Washington University, said a letter is circulating among experts like herself demanding that the CSB reinstate the memoriam pages. She said they view listing names not as an effort to shame anyone, but a simple statement of fact and a gesture of respect.
Monforton investigated the infamous Upper Big Branch disaster, which killed 29 coal miners. One thing she’s learned over the years, she said, is that it means a lot to family members to see the deceased recognized as human beings, rather than just job classifications. The act also helps convey the significance of the underlying investigation: There are real lives at stake.
“The first thing they’re going to do is look at the report when it comes out,” Monforton said. “It’s important to have information about what happened. But not a single mention of who this person was?”
She said she and others have spent years trying to convey this sentiment to officials, both federal and state, who are responsible for scrutinizing workplace deaths. She noted that the memoriam pages were not always policy at the CSB, but probably came about years ago because of such pleas.
The wrangling over something so seemingly small reflects the often strange politics of workplace safety. Regulators can be reluctant to appear critical of the employers they investigate, even when workers die. Early in the Trump administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration dramatically cut back the number of press releases it was issuing for its citations, which was seen as an effort to avoid embarrassing companies that broke the law.
As an independent agency, the CSB is not as vulnerable to political decision-making. But officials there would still have a few reasons to keep their heads down these days. For one, President Trump has called for eliminating the agency. It is now operating with only three of five seats filled, and without a permanent chairperson. All three current board members’ terms will expire by the summer of 2020.
So the agency’s continued operation relies on a president who hates it nominating new members and the Senate confirming them.
As the CSB stressed, the agency does not assign fault or levy fines as a result of chemical incidents. Its job is to find out what happened and make recommendations to prevent similar tragedies from happening again. The agency is modeled after the National Transportation Safety Board, which has a similar mission and, as the CSB noted, does not include memoriam pages in its investigative reports.
That said, the report on the Pryor Trust blowout suggests there’s plenty of blame to go around. The board found that the explosion was preventable, had stronger safety precautions been taken and the government performed better oversight of gas wells. The agency said the disaster was caused by insufficient hydrostatic pressure and the failure to activate a blowout preventer, among other lapses.
In their recommendations, the board said new safety standards should be developed by the American Petroleum Institute, an industry lobby; the owner of the rig, Red Mountain; and the drilling company, Patterson-UTI. The board also recommended OSHA start regulating the onshore drilling industry.
The five workers were trapped in the driller’s cabin and died from burns and smoke inhalation. According to press reports in the wake of the disaster, their names were:
―Josh Ray, 35, of Fort Worth, Texas
―Matt Smith, 29, of McAlester, Oklahoma
―Cody Risk, 26, of Wellington, Colorado
―Parker Waldridge, 60, of Crescent, Oklahoma
―Roger Cunningham, 55, of Seminole, Oklahoma
If you are a relative of one of these men, feel free to get in touch with the author of this story.