Writers on the Range: Jobs in the oil patch – a realistic look
February 28, 2014
On television, radio and billboards in the West, the energy industry sells the notion that natural gas production provides badly needed jobs. The ads feature stunningly clean landscapes, sound almost euphoric and are designed to make us feel good.
The contrast between the feel-good nature of the ads and the reality of many of the jobs they tout is also stunning. There are jobs available, yes, but most of the workers in the gas fields are low-paid laborers who have no job security, no health benefits, no unions and no recourse against industry abuses.
These workers are not protected under the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration because they do not work inside buildings or in a deep hole in the ground. They are just now getting some attention from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health — a good thing, because injured workers who have become so incapacitated that they will never again be able to hold down a job are routinely denied workers' compensation. Those who get sick are generally unable to prove it's because they were exposed to something on the job.
Energy industry jobs can be split into two classes. The first includes salaried workers who receive high wages with benefits and paid vacation time. This salaried workforce includes managers who supervise drilling, energy production and the laying of the gathering lines. These jobs are limited, however, depending on how many drilling and fracking units are in operation across the country.
There are jobs available, yes, but most of the workers in the gas fields are low-paid laborers who have no job security, no health benefits, no unions and no recourse against industry abuses.
The second and much larger class involves workers who are paid by the hour and often desperately hope for overtime in order to earn a living wage. They include the members of the small teams on the well pads who travel with the drilling units, moving constantly and wondering where they will sleep next.
Beyond drilling and fracking, many other jobs need doing, from the initial clearing of the land for the pad to the task of getting the raw gas to the consumer. Extraction companies routinely contract with other companies to provide auxiliary services, creating sub-sub contract and sub-sub-sub contract workers.
Their jobs include driving tanker trucks and heavy equipment, welding, cleaning the inside of fracking tanks, working around compressors and toxic solvents, and maintaining and repairing the vast pipeline infrastructure that delivers the methane. These workers are often the first to get to a spill in order to shovel dirt and apply dispersants. The work they do can expose them to toxic volatile compounds that, when inhaled, can have both immediate and long-term, delayed health impacts.
Employees work long hours, take physical risks and receive little protection. Many subcontractors, for instance, make their workers incorporate themselves and paint the name of their corporations on the sides of their trucks, in order to make it look as though they are self-employed. Yet since these workers usually work for just one subcontractor, they should be considered its employees, entitled to all the benefits that are supposed to come with employment.
When companies pull up stakes and move, these "self-employed" folks end up with no unemployment benefits, because self-employed people are also not required to pay workers' compensation. But the drilling companies assume no responsibility for them; the workers have to cover their own taxes, health insurance and medical bills, and when the companies decide to drill elsewhere, they're just out of luck.
Many contract workers rely on drugs, both over-the-counter and illegal, to treat job-related disorders as well as to stay awake to the end of the shift.
Since they lack health insurance, they also turn to the nearest hospital's emergency services, forcing the local community to pay for treatment that workers can't afford.
Besides suffering problems ranging from immune disorders, hypertension, loss of libido, and chronic pulmonary disorders, workers are also highly susceptible to alcohol and drug addiction. During the last decade, when western Colorado experienced a boom, Garfield County established a 90-bed rehabilitation center to assist workers who failed a urine test three times in a row.
It is unfortunate that a code of silence, tinged with fear, pervades this sub-contract workforce.
Often it stems from the loyalty of the workers, who would rather have these high-risk jobs than no jobs at all.
Meanwhile, energy companies expect these second-order jobs to increase to 870,000 by 2015. Western workers deserve a better alternative.
Theo Colborn is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She established the Endocrine Disruption Exchange in 2002 in Paonia, Colo., and is co-author of "Our Stolen Future."
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