Mining, oil and gas Oil and gas

Safety during a downturn

The oil and gas industry is struggling. How do employers promote worker safety in a lean job market?

Oil and gas industry safety

Key points

  • Experts say it’s important for safety professionals to be aware of their workers’ mental state. They might feel pressure from home in addition to feeling pressure from the company and the customer.
  • Older workers experience different challenges during an economic downturn than younger workers. For example, older workers might be asked to perform more basic, physically demanding tasks that they have not done for years.
  • During a downturn, safety professionals also should start thinking ahead and planning for the upturn that is likely to follow.

Additional resources

Times are tough in the oil fields.

Jobs are difficult to find and even harder to keep. Hundreds of oil rigs have been shut down. Thousands of workers have been let go, and those left behind are worried about tomorrow.

Welcome to the latest economic downturn in the oil and gas industry.

“You could look a man in the eye and lie to him and tell him, ‘Oh, we’re not going to lay anybody off,’” said Anthony Zacniewski, HSE director at Abilene, TX-based Bandera Drilling. “But people in this industry know what’s going on. Most people have been through 2008 and 2009, when oil went from $120 a barrel to $30 a barrel. This is the same thing.”

When an industry slumps, two things can happen to occupational safety. It can take a backseat as organizations feverishly try to accomplish more with less. Or it can remain a priority, preventing a bad situation from becoming worse.

In uncertain times, achieving safety is no easy feat. Oilfield workers may be distracted by fears about their job security. Others might feel pressure to take shortcuts and rush a task rather than take the time to perform it safely. They know that many unemployed peers would love their job, and they don’t want to provide any reason to be replaced.

Safety manuals offer guidance on policies, processes and tangible equipment. But it’s equally important for safety professionals to be aware of their workers’ mental state, experts say.

“It’s a very real thing,” said Elaine Cullen, president of Spokane, WA-based Prima Consulting Services. “The thing is, you can have an excellent employee who has a great safety record and everything else. But every day that person comes to work, they’re a different person. Because they have stresses that you’ll never see.”

Many dimensions

In the oil and gas industry, a downturn has a ripple effect on organizations and workers alike.

Gary Childress, who has spent nearly four decades in the industry, has experienced more than a few downturns during that time.

“I think a lot of people forget all the dimensions of a downturn,” said Childress, vice president, HSE, at Oil States Energy Services in Houston. “It’s not just that, ‘Oh, I’m worried about my job.’ There are so many more factors.

“There is an expansion of your role because of cutbacks. There are pressures from the customer. There are pressures from the company. There are pressures that you feel from home because the family is also watching the same news that you’re watching.

“And then there [might be] a freezing of pay, or not getting recognized as you would in an upturn. A lot of times, companies will discontinue the non-essential training or development that grows your career. It’s all of the traditional things that you would think of, but it goes much further than that.”

After some workers are laid off, those who remain with the organization might be asked to carry more of the burden. Some workers might be asked to do the jobs of multiple people. New crews might include members who have never worked together as a team.

Cullen said the changes can affect older and younger workers in different ways. She remembered an experience in which she was on a rig during difficult economic times.

“Every single person on that rig had been a driller or a tool pusher at some point,” Cullen said. “So now they’re doing jobs that they may have not performed for 20-some years. That would be the message to older workers: Remember you’re not 19 anymore. Keep that in mind as you’re doing a job that is more physical than the one that you had been doing.”

Meanwhile, younger workers might be experiencing their first downturn in the industry. They can benefit by listening and learning from veteran colleagues who have been through similar situations.

“The millennials need to be paying attention to people who have experience,” Cullen said. “Listen. Talk to older people and ask, how did they get through it? What did they do?”

In the field

At Bandera Drilling, Zacniewski focuses on keeping workers safe during good times and bad. His approach during a downturn is to be honest with employees and remind them about why they are the ones the organization has chosen to keep.

“I’ll say, ‘Look, you guys are the best of the best. This is where we need you to perform like you’re the best of the best,’” Zacniewski said. “We let them know, this is where we’re at: We’re down because of layoffs. We have picked you out to be the cream of the crop. This is where you need to ?give us 110 percent because we can’t afford an injury. Even when we’re running at full strength, we can’t afford an injury.”

Zacniewski knows the challenges of oil field work. He was a “roughneck” – the nickname given to oil field workers – from 1996 to 2003 after serving as a New Mexico state trooper. Working on a crew, he said, was all about focus and togetherness. If one worker was distracted, then every member of the crew could be thrust into harm’s way.

Think of the crew as an offensive line in football. One weak link can break the chain.

“Once that center hikes the ball, if your right guard doesn’t do his job, then your quarterback is going to get run over,” Zacniewski said. “It’s the same thing out there at the rig. If you’re not doing your job – let’s just say it’s the lead tong hand – then that piece of equipment can come loose and hit somebody else.

“We’ve got a lot of automated equipment. If a guy steps in the wrong spot, then that floor hand is going to hit him. Or if he doesn’t do his job with a tag line, that piece of equipment is going to come loose and hit somebody else.”

Planning ahead

Managing safety despite cost-control measures is key during a downturn. Yet safety professionals say it also is critical to begin preparing for the inevitable rebound.

“You have to start thinking about the upturn,” Childress said. “I have no idea when [it will arrive], nor do the greatest minds of the world know. But you can’t be caught sleeping. You have to be ready, or people are going to get hurt.”

Some items to keep in mind for the expected upturn:

  • Form a plan to handle the expected influx of new employees.
  • Determine the equipment that will be needed when business grows again.
  • Assess the type of extra work that will be performed during an upturn.
  • Set a plan to train new employees; determine who is qualified to conduct the training.

All the while, remember that safety culture can remain strong even when the market is weak.

“I believe it can,” Zacniewski said. “That’s where you put a lot of trust in your guys that are out there now. You tell them, once we start back up, you’re going to be the guys that are asked to train that next individual. You survived this. So when guys come back, you need to let them know what to do. We have to be able to count on you.”

Who knows? Brighter days could be here sooner than you think.

“That’s the question to HSE leaders,” Childress said. “Yeah, we’re in a downturn. But are you ready for the upturn? What’s the risk there? Have you thought about that? Have you begun planning for what that’s going to look like and what you’re going to do?”

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