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For oil rig workers, high stress and high risk

Tall order: Drilling pipes loom large on an oil platform. A CDC report showed fatality rates on rigs at about seven times higher than that for all workers.
Tall order: Drilling pipes loom large on an oil platform. A CDC report showed fatality rates on rigs at about seven times higher than that for all workers. (Gerald Herbert/assocated Press)

"You have a bunch of people out there who are green and don't know what they're doing. They're working 12 on and 12 off, sometimes 18s, sometimes 24s. Accidents happen, and it's the ultimately the almighty dollar that drives it all."

One of his clients was Garold Bates, a contractor who was injured in January 2004. He had been sent to an Energy Partners oil rig to unload supplies, but found crashing waves were ramming his boat up against the platform pilings like a toy. A co-worker warned the company foreman back on the coast by radio that unloading the supplies was not a good idea due to the rough seas. The foreman ordered the pair to "go ahead and put it on there." Bates's leg was crushed between the platform and the boat, requiring emergency medical treatment and subsequent therapy for his injuries.

"The man that told [us] to do it, he wasn't there," Bates said in his deposition. "There probably wasn't any seas kicking up where he was at on the land."

The incident was never reported to the MMS; an Energy Partners spokesperson said it is not necessary to report incidents that are initially classified as a "first aid" problem. Lawyers said companies often avoid reporting accidents to win bonuses and future work because of their clean safety records. Bates's injury lawsuit ended with a judge mediating a settlement in which the company paid Bates an undisclosed sum and admitted no fault.

Lee Hunt, director of the International Association of Drilling Contractors, says the view of rigs as unsafe and exploitative is "a total fabrication, a kind of dream scenario for an injury lawyer.

"Crews offshore are well fed, well housed, well paid, and very proud to be working the rigs," he said. "These are incredibly well trained crews, and to say they're treated so badly is terribly offensive."

As the rigs become increasingly sophisticated and computer-guided, he said, the need for well educated, experienced and highly paid professionals has grown. An entry-level roustabout or maintenance worker will make $50,000 to $60,000 a year, and professionals substantially more.

A former senior MMS supervisor said that in 2007 and 2008, a handful of senior managers in the agency pushed the MMS Office of Safety Management to automatically fine operators when a worker was killed in an accident on its rigs or platforms. But "that ran right into the culture, a lot of opposition," said the supervisor, who was familiar with the effort.

"It was like pushing Jell-O uphill."

The issue of worker safety is playing a role in the follow-up to the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) championed a bill that would prevent companies from firing employees who report safety violations and allows whistleblowers to appeal perceived retaliation to the Secretary of Labor.

"We have heard that the workers aboard the [Deepwater Horizon] rig had safety concerns, but in the end they were powerless to stop the cascading string of bad decisions by BP that led to the disaster," Markey said during debate. The bill passed the House by a vote of 315-93 and was incorporated into a larger energy bill that passed the House on a far closer vote.

The legislation, however, stalled in the Senate.

Staff writer Juliet Eilperin and researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this story.

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