By any account, 2020 has been a bad year for the oil and gas industry. Big oil companies have faced the twin threats of a global health crisis and historically low demand. And workers everywhere have felt the aftershocks.
As the oil companies have struggled to cope and plan their paths to recovery, they have halted new developments and scaled back their operations. Many smaller oil companies look likely to go bankrupt. And as The New Yorker reported back in April, U.S. oil companies have laid off thousands of workers.
Does cutting costs lead to cutting corners on safety?
The problems facing oil and gas workers don’t stop with the layoffs. Those workers who manage to keep their jobs may feel fortunate they can still bring home a paycheck. But many of them are suffering as well. As one worker told Houston Public Media, staying employed in the industry often means accepting certain sacrifices. Specifically, he said that after his company laid him off, he had to update his resume and then took a new job at roughly half his old pay rate.
In addition to pay cuts, oil and gas workers face a host of additional pressures:
- According to a report from Reuters, workers whose retirements banked heavily on stock in their companies suffered more than $5 billion in recent losses
- Companies have released the contractors responsible for things like cleaning spills, meaning that employees must cover those tasks or leave them unfinished
- Offshore workers have had to deal with long quarantines and extended rotations
- Despite the extra safety precautions, offshore rigs are particularly vulnerable to outbreaks when workers show up infected
- As NBC reports, this means many workers must choose between their family’s health and their careers, lest they lose their jobs if they ask for leave
- Longer rotations can lead to fatigue, and studies show that sleepy or fatigued workers are 70 percent more likely to suffer injuries
The law demands that oil companies prioritize worker safety. And oil companies always claim they’re focused on worker safety. Still, the truth is that the current pressures and trend toward deregulation have added up. Since 2016, oil and gas injuries have risen by 50 percent.
Worker safety has too often proven an afterthought
This past year isn’t the first time the oil and gas industry has struggled. While some experts debate whether the industry might recover, the fact is that some patterns reflect earlier crises. Harsh economic challenges have often pushed oil companies to merge. The big companies have become bigger. They’ve looked for ways to shave costs. And worker safety has often been compromised.
Workers have suffered throughout the industry. Those who still hold their jobs are often forced to take wage cuts. They’re asked to take longer shifts and rotations. And financially stressed companies often overlook the safeguards meant to protect their workers. In short, if you’re still working in the industry, you might count your blessings, but you’ll want to do so with your eyes wide open.