A Terrible, Terrible Choice - Gulf of Mexico Oil Industry Veteran Speaks Out
This is part two of a three part series featuring an insider look at the oil industry in the Gulf of Mexico - including environmental practices, worker-related injuries and deaths, and the industry’s economic and political influence - through the lens of thirty-five-year oil worker Randy Comeaux. See part one here.
Between 2003 and 2010, 128 offshore oil workers lost their lives, according to a 2013 Center for Disease Control and Prevention study. All but one of those fatalities happened in the Gulf of Mexico. The study found that offshore oil workers are seven times more likely to die in work-related activities than any other worker in the United States.
No doubt these risks are one reason why an oil worker’s average wage is around $100,000 a year. Where else could you make that much on a high school education?
One has to wonder, are offshore oil workers paid to die?
“I think oil workers make a terrible, terrible choice that their job is worth the risk,” states retired Gulf of Mexico compliance inspector Randy Comeaux.
VIDEO: “Your job vs Your Life” – Oil industry veteran Randy Comeaux details the plight concerning injuries and fatalities among oil workers in the Gulf. Drawing from his 35 years of experiences in the field, Comeaux explains that the numbers cited in the study may actually be considerably lower than the realities of the job.
“It’s a very strong culture, that they cultivate, that ‘what happens offshore, stays offshore,” he says.
Adding, “And enormous amounts of incidents and accidents are not reported… Instead, what (the companies) will do is they will take an injured worker, take him to a doctor, get him taken care of, and... put him in the office filing training records, so he’ll have zero lost days.”
Oil worker injuries are not counted by US regulatory agencies or insurance companies if no time was lost on the job. Comeaux says this is the motivation for keeping workers going in some capacity, even after an injury.
“That’s a very, very common practice,” he explains. “Obviously because if a worker is injured, your worker’s comp rate goes up, so why report a worker injured?”
“In one of the ship yards down in Larose, a forklift backed over one of the workers, where it broke his leg. They took him to a private doctor, got a cast… put him on the owner’s private jet, flew him back to his hometown in Mexico, gave him $10,000 in cash, and told him not to come back. They didn’t file an accident report. Things like that happen, unfortunately.”
“They don’t want the regulatory agencies knowing, they don’t want the insurance companies knowing, they don’t want upper management knowing, and consequently we have a lot of bad information going to the upper offices, and we still got a lot of people getting hurt offshore,” adds Comeaux.
The South Louisiana resident sees this lack of reporting as a problem that stretches beyond individuals injured or killed, but one that affects the safety of workers across the industry.
“The terrible thing about it is when bad things happen the real truth doesn’t come out, because it is suppressed by the worker, by the person in charge of the field, and the lesson learned never really comes out. And it’s not a good situation. Our industry lacks integrity.”
“If people would sit back and tell the truth about a situation, it would be so easy to figure out what happened and to fix it, so that it didn’t happen again. If people would just report what happened, to where BSEE [Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement] could go out and help them, but nobody wants to report anything,” he says.
Why wouldn’t workers report injuries to superiors or regulatory agencies themselves?
“A lot of these companies recruit neighbors. I mean they will go to a town and hire 150 people. Bring them and train them, and come out with 50 people that they will put on the rig, so that anything that you say affects your next door neighbor. So your next door neighbor is on your butt, ‘man you’re getting us in trouble here.”
Comeaux says that in addition to worries about fellow worker’s livelihoods, whistleblowing in the oil industry is met with direct intimidation from other workers and superiors alike.
VIDEO: Listen to retired oil worker Randy Comeaux explain how whistleblowers are received by the industry and fellow employees.
“In our industry, whistle blowing is frowned upon. When you talk to the administrative branches of all of the companies – oil companies and service companies, they will tell you a story of how whistle blowing is an integral part of safety and compliance and (that the whistleblowers) are rewarded,” he explains.
Laws and regulations on paper support the industry’s claims. Workers have safe guards that protect them under the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989. And according to the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit public interest group, a worker has the right to protection under the act to “report firsthand knowledge of wrongdoing to an appropriate authority within an organization…, legal authority outside the organization, to refuse to participate in any wrongdoing;” as well as to “leak evidence to the media,” without fear of being “ostracized and marginalized.”
In addition, oil companies often cite the industry elected option of Stop Work Authority (SWA) available to their employees. SWA policies give workers the right to immediately stop any job where they feel that they are being asked to perform under dangerous conditions.
Yet Comeaux explains that there is a far skip between what is written on paper and what is the reality for oil workers in the Gulf of Mexico.
“(Whistleblowing is) discouraged. It’s threatened. It’s, you know, frowned upon, because people in the field don’t want to get in trouble and get fines, or get fired, or get arrested.”
“I’ve had operators threaten me. ‘Don’t write that up.’”
He adds that industry management are not the only ones guilty of intimidation tactics when it comes to oil worker speaking up about potentially harmful situations.
“I know for a fact that very, very many men say things like… ‘Hey, you know, it wouldn’t be nothing for you to fall overboard at night and not anybody know,’ or ‘You know, we might accidentally drop a… pipe wrench from the upper deck.’”
“A lot of threatening language like that is used among people offshore… It’s been going on since the entire 35 years that I have been offshore.”
As for SWA, Comeaux says this option is rarely used in the field, “because [the workers] know that if they call in regulators, or use a stop work authority, they may be released from their job for some bullsh** reason.”
Meanwhile, “we continue to have the amount of injuries reported, the amount of fires, the amount of deaths, the amount of blow-outs – the numbers don’t change.”
He adds that although it is difficult, the first line of defense to protecting workers from harm comes from the men and women on the rigs themselves.
“The oil companies, they set aside a budget on a yearly basis for fighting lawsuits, for injuries and deaths, and as far as they are concerned, it’s like ‘Man, you died, go let your wife collect social security.’”
VIDEO: “Insanity” – Randy Comeaux talks about what he sees as a lack of integrity in the oil industry which often leads to a lack of protection for workers.
His advice for a worker who find his or herself in unsafe conditions is “[don’t] take the chance, leave, you can get another job. You don’t have to keep a job at the risk of your life – that’s insanity.”
He adds the reminder that “… with everything you do, remember this: you are in charge of your life. You are in charge of ensuring that your life continues. You are in charge of ensuring that your safety continues. So, when you are out there, and somebody tells you to do something that you think is not safe, you ask for a stop work and talk about it.”
“And if those people are not willing to stop work, and they give you some ‘hey, I’ve been doing this for thirty years..’ - or ‘Don’t worry about it, nothing will happen,’ pick up your safety hat and walk off… If they don’t stop, leave… Your life is not worth anything these oil companies have to offer.”
Please stay tuned to bridgethegulfproject.org for more in the series, Lies, Deceit, and Lessons Unlearned - Gulf of Mexico Oil Industry Veteran Speaks Out, coming soon.