We are not a “pay to play” publication - meaning, we’ve turned down four companies that have approached us in the past wanting to flat our pay us to run “canned articles” written to look as though they were legitimately researched and independently produced. The company had in fact written the articles promoting their products. The money would have been nice, but we hold a high regard for the integrity and quality of the information we provide our readership. We simply said “thanks, but no thanks” to these companies as we don’t want to sell out our readership to the highest bidder.
But while developing this issue’s research on the topic of safety, we realized that research and observation alone could only take us so far in trying to convey the critical importance of safety in the energy workplace. Energy Ink made contact with several safety companies during the course of our work and through a third party we found the great people of Badlands Integrity Group. This final article in our series on Safety in the Energy Workplace was truly driven in large part by an interview with Badlands Integrity Group (B.I.G.) owner Shelly Fleck. B.I.G. provides outsourced Health, Safety, Environmental, and Human Resource expertise to their clients. It was her years of work as an underground coal miner in West Virginia, impressive background in study for an International Doctorate in Health and Safety, and intimate knowledge of the key drivers impacting safety in the oil, gas, and coal mining industry’s that prompted the most important points to be learned in this article. We have met with other safety companies doing similar work and frankly, many are fantastic people with great backgrounds. But B.I.G.’s all encompassing work since 2004, where an energy company can find all of their needs in safety training from a grassroots led safety company, begged us to invite B.I.G. to sponsor a series of four quarterly articles which we hope keeps the awareness of safety in the minds of our energy working readership.
I was driving home from work almost 20 years ago. It was a 45 minute drive across the rural back roads of Illinois through endless gray plowed fields sitting idle months after the late summer harvest. I was falling asleep. But I made it into town. I had to get gas before going home and was actually starting to drop my speed from the long trip when I started screwing around with some gear I had in the passenger seat. I knew for a fact I’d scanned the road ahead before looking away… I was certain. I was wrong. I nailed a parked car going 45mph – no breaks. Though the ’89 Jeep I drove didn’t have airbags, I was wearing my seatbelt. Had I not been, and I survived, I’d have been totaled like my vehicle.
In an instant I went from drowsy to stunned with my vehicle sitting sideways in the roadway, smoke billowing up from the engine. I felt a terrible warm wet sensation in my lap… blood?… I freaked out for an instant… no, “oh please no, I know I didn’t lose control of my bladder did I?” I was now freaking for a different reason… then the realization: The spit bottle I’d been using for chewing tobacco that was full from the 45 minute drive had dumped all over my lap. I took off the seat belt, got out of the car – a huge wet spot on my pants - and surveyed what was left of my car… and how I’d put the trunk of a crappy brown late model Oldsmobile into its front seat.
In a previous article, it was noted that transportation accidents are the leading cause of fatalities in the energy workforce. That day back in 1993, I was wearing my seat belt only because of a ticket I’d gotten before. As a result, the only repercussions from the accident was having to ride my motorcycle to work - 45 minutes both ways for two months in 35-40 degree weather - and the ticket I’d gotten for the wreck... which was “failure to yield.” Well, he wasn’t the brightest cop, but I suppose I didn’t yield.
Simply wearing a seatbelt can save your life. But it is the mindset you carry into to driver’s seat that Shelly Fleck, owner of Badlands Integrity Group, told me was one of the biggest factors leading to the horrible record of energy worker vehicle accidents. “There’s all kinds of pressures these workers face,” she said, starting perhaps with a wife (or husband) at home forgetting about all the other pressure at work a person faces. Whether the worker’s significant other is in the Bakken, or a thousand miles away, the pressures of home life are a constant. “Don’t forget you were late for work yesterday,” “make sure you fix that gutter when you get home,” “you need to spend more time with your family,” and countless other seemingly mild demands pile high on a worker’s mind. Add to this for the guy working hundreds of miles away from loved ones the constant calls and text messages carrying gripes or lonely messages, or your buddy saying he saw so-and-so making time with your girlfriend, and the notion of “distracted driving” begins to get clearers.
And that’s just to start - the foundation of the stress. The Bakken suffers from “Go Fever”, a term coined by NASA after losing three astronauts on the launching pad during a training mission for the moon. NASA was racing to put men on the moon by the end of the 1960’s and the schedule was gruelling… and as a result, they were ignoring the basic concepts of safety. “The company men want to meet that quota,” Shelly points out, which impacts an entire chain or events. Meeting that quota established by the boss, added to the incentives in some jobs of big money for meeting and exceeding quotas, and you get workers whose “heads aren’t fully in the game.” Truckers especially are like “coiled springs” in some cases, she adds. “Drivers have to wait a long time to fill up water trucks, they get anxious to get loaded and go.” When they do, they go! Some times as fast as they can in order to make their drop and get to the next jobsite.
Ed Powers, General Manager of Global Operations, American Medical Response (AMR) Onsite Safety and Health, who works in Houston, also lives in Pennsylvania where the Marcellus Shale is being worked with a similar frenzy. He related a story where he had recently been inadvertently run off the road by a water truck. “These guys just get lost. There’s a lot of open and unfamiliar space they have to travel.” He’s heard stories of friends and neighbors having drivers “knock on their doors asking for directions.”
The stress of home added to the nature of the job almost demands a culture of distracted driving. Shelly’s company offers a distracted driver course in which she plays the role of the “Chihuahua wife” to make her point. “I play it well” she says in trying to ramp up the familiar stresses these guys face in order to drive home the point – they are not always paying attention on the road. And it works, with some guys in her classes nearly reliving a day of stress while Shelly rattles off a familiar list of irritations they face from a wife, a boss, and their own conscience.
“But using fear as a tactic is not what we do. It doesn’t work.” She comments. “We just want to give the opportunity for companies and workers to be proactive. That’s the big problem we see.” Most companies see safety as a requirement rather than a need she emphasized, flatly stating “companies are being reactive, not proactive, and by then sometimes, it’s too late.”
It comes down to what’s most important. Your paycheck or your life? Stress doesn’t have to be the distracter that it is, as Shelly puts it, “S*** happens – but it doesn’t happen every single day.” If may feel that way, but the mental mindset of a worker in the field is THE KEY FACTOR in ensuring safety in the workplace.
Changing the Culture
So what is the solution when the competition is so fierce for these high paying jobs? Subcontracting competition has tremendously impacted this atmosphere of “Go Fever” as companies guarantee time over safety. Shelly believes that a top down fix won’t work. The “atmosphere has to be changed with the boots on the ground” – the guys in the field. “Everyone has to take a step back.” But she adds that the “Leadership is not always leading.” They are the key contributors to these guys fighting for the dollar with a “get it done” culture. Stress and mental health are a safety issue.
It may take small steps to begin changing a company’s culture – one that truly puts the worker’s safety first. It may be as simple as dusting off the safety manual and giving it a genuine “once over.” Though workers may seem typically well versed in the basics of training and first aid, the more significant steps in creating a safe environment are being overlooked. Ed Powers of AMR Onsite makes it clear that changing a work environment is a process. Redeveloping a company specific safety manual can be a “year long process.” A cut and paste manual won’t suffice. “When OHSA comes in to audit, they will ask top see your safety manual, then start asking employees questions about that manual,” Ed warns. And there are always OSHA updates that must be included in that manual. If you need help putting a company specific safety manual together, “get help from a company that will help you customize it like B.I.G.” Shelly Fleck advises.
Beyond the basics of a manual, Ed Powers stresses the importance of tracking near misses on the job – incidents where no one is hurt, but something clearly went wrong. That “log” can lead to seeing trends that need to be addressed. Change can start with other basics. “‘Tool walk safety talks’ at the beginning of the shift” are vital according the Ed. “A good idea is to simply talk about something that happened the night before, or putting a bunch of safety issues in a hat and picking one for the day to talk about.”
Communication and monitoring are the key starting points to changing the work environment with a goal of striving for “zero” incidents being at the forefront. “Safety is expensive,” as Ed puts it but the costs of proactive measures in training are far less than being reactive. Ed informed that the average “slip, trip, or fall” costs a company upwards of $144,000 including downtime, possible fines, and other indirect costs.
“Boots on the ground,” is where the BIG Push for safety has to come maintains Shelly. “Safety meetings where these guys participate and aren’t half asleep,” are vital, but when the company is not helping a worker work safely and doesn’t seem to understand those indirect
costs, at times the worker is then placed in a rough spot. Shelly is blunt in saying that “Some company’s don’t even know where their safety manual is.” And one simple complaint to a boss can result in a lost job – regardless of that being illegal. Though B.I.G. works for energy companies, they ultimately are working for the workers. She feels a state wide anonymous tip line may be needed to help workers who have no where to turn when an operator is flatly ignoring safety. Until then, she encourages workers with genuine concerns to call Badlands Integrity Group at 800-235-4BIG (4244). They will keep your name anonymous.
Safety in the Bakken needs to become a genuine issue of importance. It is the hope of Energy Ink that the region begins to realize this as a whole in a very significant way. No amount of “preaching” by the “Ink” will change that, but until then, knowing that the final line of defense in safety is ultimately the worker himself, the best we can do is keep the conversation going. For the next three issues, we’ll do so in addressing the topic of safety through this quarterly feature. In the meantime, slow down, pay attention to what’s going in, and be safe.