23-Year-Old Roughneck's Death Highlight Risks of $100K Jobs in Oil and Gas

FILE - In this June 25, 2012 file photo, a crew works on a gas drilling rig at a well site for shale based natural gas in Zel
FILE - In this June 25, 2012 file photo, a crew works on a gas drilling rig at a well site for shale based natural gas in Zelienople, Pa. As the oil and gas drilling method known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," mobilizes thousands around the country both for and against the process, industry and some environmental groups in Illinois have come together to draft regulations both sides could live with. Some hope that cooperative approach could be a model for other states. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)

Oil and gas drilling sites are among the most dangerous workplaces in the United States. Since 2006, some 652 workers have died in the oilfields, often due to highway crashes, being struck by equipment, falls from great heights, electrocution and other mishaps. The rate of fatalities is
currently 25 out of every 100,000 workers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Around 2006, gas drillers began arriving in the Northeast to drill into the Marcellus Shale using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The technique involves blasting pressurized water, sand and chemicals at shale rock to release trapped oil and gas.

The sudden boom in the industry attracted inexperienced workers, many of whom have little training in the oilfields. Charles "CJ" Bevins III, a 23-year old roughneck who died in New York, was one of them.

An article in E & E's EnergyWire dealing with worker safety has untangled the reasons behind CJ's death and provides a window into the multiple pressures of working in oil and gas.

CJ was working at a gas drilling site in Smyrna, New York when he was crushed to death by a forklift. The forklift had sunk into the soft ground and its boom had picked up CJ and pinned him against a trailer. He died hours later. The operating company was Norse Energy USA and CJ was employed by Braden Drilling LLC.

His coworkers say that before the accident CJ and his colleagues had asked Norse to provide 60 rig mats, which are steel-framed wooden pallets that cover the ground and stabilize it. It is alleged the company only gave them 30. From the story:

To the oil field contractor, the company man reigns supreme, and the company man oftentimes is not focused on safety because he cares more about production first," said John Stephens, an independent safety, health and environment consultant in Texas with four decades of experience in the petroleum and chemical industries.

In court documents, CJ's colleagues say his death could have been avoided if the company had provided these mats. OSHA also faulted the company, but for a different reason. They said that the forklift operator wasn't properly trained.

Part of the challenge in the industry is that the bulk of the workers on onshore oil and gas fields these days are inexperienced. In the decades before the current shale gas boom, few men entered the profession because there were hardly any jobs.

The result: a bimodal distribution of age, where oilfields are populated by workers closer to retirement and by younger, inexperienced hands. As the older generation retires, there are fewer men left to train the new hands attracted to the nearly $100,000 annual salaries in the booming industry. The trend is called the 'Great Crew Change,' and it's responsible for the spike in the number of accidents.

An analysis in Texas found that two-thirds of all deaths in oilfields happen within the first year of service.

CJ had done a short stretch in the oilfields in 2006 before returning to the industry in 2011. He had died within a week of starting at the rig site in New York. His death was marked by a short obituary in the local newspaper in Buckhannon. His employer, Braden Drilling, paid some money for a funeral service. OSHA conducted an investigation and fined the company $4,900. The companies moved on but his family has not.

His sister, Charlotte Bevins, has been working with a New York senator, Tony Avella (D), to introduce worker safety legislation that would improve training or allow workers to unionize.

Also highlighted in an accompanying video is oil and gas worker James Riley's take on the industry. Here he's talking about the culture of cost-cutting (at 1:44 mins):

James Riley: They don't wait the eight hours for the cement to dry, you know. They just recalibrate the computer to make -- you know, make up the lost time. Every four hours they save is closer to a 24-hour day, and every 24 hours they save is anywhere from $35,000 to $50,000. I mean, because we get paid day rate, so every -- you know, every -- I mean, every hour they save, they're saving, I mean. But they don't -- they're not looking at the fact that every hour they're cutting corners with is a chance they're taking. I mean, they might save $30,000 this time, but what happens next time if the casing falls, or the cement don't hold, you know?