oil rig

The New Gold Rush

In the June issue of Industrial Hygiene and Safety News there is an editorial that presents an interesting confluence of personality, cognition, and safety. This is a special issue on the oil and gas industry and the editorial focuses on the culture of the shale oil industry, which is a remarkable parallel to the gold rush of yore (as well as the real estate boom of the 2000s, but I am still too sensitive about that one to talk about it).

In September, 2014, The Atlantic magazine published a lengthy piece on the Bakken and “the sacrifices Americans endure to find decent work.” It’s the same old story. Mostly young, restless, dissatisfied individuals take stock of their situation and make personal risk assessments.

Dave Johnson presents some examples of safety violations and risky behavior that he suggests are common. He proposes two major factors that contribute:

  • The 20-30 year-old men most likely to move to North Dakota to work the shale start out with a gold rush mentality. This self-selected population is particularly susceptible to self-delusion.
  • The companies know their time is short, so they push exceedingly hard at the productivity metric, even at the expense of the safety metric. This is all too common and easy to do beneath the surface and informally when it is integral to the culture.

My Take

We know that the highest levels of values-based reasoning don’t develop fully until the late 20s. The people most likely to be attracted by the gold rush mentality are probably those on the tail end of this development (the perils of the 5th percentile!). So we shouldn’t be surprised if they are more likely to take risks. They are probably more extrinsically motivated, so the lure of performance bonuses can push them through the gray zone. It is easy to rationalize that safety regulations are created to protect the worker, so if the worker is willing to take on the risk, it is acceptable to push the boundaries. That argument breaks down in many ways, particularly when a trucker logging extended hours gets sleepy and causes a crash on the highway or runs thousands of pounds overweight and turns the truck into a guided missile (one of the true examples described in the editorial).

We also know how easy it is to create an informal organizational culture that directly contradicts what is written in the official company policies. Of course companies that value their employees’ safety and health have safety policies and documented procedures that comply with all regulations. But when push comes to shove, what happens on the ground often skirts these rules “just this one time” when the deadline is so salient and no one seems to mind.

Your Turn

Is this also your experience? What do you think we can do to intervene? The simple answer is to establish a strong safety culture, but that is easier said than done. Especially in places that are in this gold rush context.

Stricter regulation maybe? OSHA tries, but Congress doesn’t seem attuned to this option these days.

What are your suggestions?

Image Credit: Paul Lowry

3 thoughts on “The New Gold Rush”

  1. Marc, this is a subject that I deal with on a daily basis. I live right in the middle of the Eagle Ford Shale formation in Texas. My dad worked in the oilfield from the early 1970s up until 2010. The “gold fever” mentality is there, considering that over $30 billion of capital has been invested in this shale play.

    It is also interesting to see how the “gold fever” mentality changes in correlation with the price of crude oil per barrel. When the price per barrel was around $100, many companies (and the workers) were working crazy amounts of hours to produce as much oil as possible. Now that the price of crude is around $60 per barrel, the pace is less hectic.

    The area where I see the most injuries in oil & gas are related to fatigue, especially while driving. Growing up in the oilfield, I would expect more musculoskeletal-related injuries from lifting, awkward postures, etc., but in all actuality, the physical demands from a material handling perspective have actually decreased over the years. However, couple the long work hours with south Texas heat and humidity, and there is an increase in heat-related illness and fatigue, which leads to decreased focus and quality, which translates to increased potential and severity of injury. Interesting topic…

  2. The real problem is the mentality that is reflected in skirting the defined processes – safety is just one. Managers and employees frequently cut corners to meet schedule or cost targets. Most of the time the bad consequences are minimal compared to the rewards. We only see this behavior publicly when something tragic happens. What is needed is a culture where the prescribed process is followed explicitly even at the expense of schedule or cost and potential profit loss. If the process is burdensome or ineffective, change the process officially, not by circumvention. It’s the view that “this little deviation from the process won’t hurt” that leads to it being generalized as a common practice that then culminates in a tragedy.

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