March 25, 2015

A Deadly Industry

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March 22, 2015 | The Texas Tribune and Houston Chronicle | Jim Malewitz, Jolie McCullough, Ben Hasson and Lise Olsen

Oil refineries have a dismal reputation when it comes to worker safety. In February, thousands of refinery workers went on strike to demand safer conditions. But the industry’s safety concerns are compounded by the fact that oil refinery fatalities often go uncounted.

Measuring a problem is a vital step in addressing it. As part of an investigation into deadly practices at refineries, the Texas Tribune and Houston Chronicle compiled a database of oil refinery worker fatalities over the past 20 years. This was not a trivial task. Simply searching public Occupational Safety and Health Administration data for petroleum refining fatalities yields an incomplete picture, because:

Oil refiners have increasingly contracted out some of their most dangerous jobs to companies that are classified elsewhere in the federal system. The many categories include “3443, Fabricated Plate Work,” “1799, Special Trade Contractors, Not Elsewhere Classified” and “1629, Heavy Construction, Not Elsewhere Classified.”

To fill in the gaps, the Tribune and Chronicle’s team also searched government reports, media coverage and legal documents. Their database shows that there have been at least 58 oil refinery worker deaths since a major explosion in 2005 in Texas City, Texas killed 15 workers and brought scrutiny to safety practices in refining.

Refineries are not the only dangerous link in the oil and gas supply chain. To find out more about oil and gas worker safety, check out Inside Energy’s investigation, Dark Side Of The Boom.