The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

The Standard-Bearer of Workplace Safety

Kate Wallace

Kate Wallace
Posted October 4, 2017

A Hard Exterior for Tougher Conditions

Today’s natural gas and oil industry is a sector of advanced technology that’s focused on safely developing the energy our country needs. Safety starts with our own workers.

Ensuring safe workplaces always has been a priority, yet today’s industry is working to enhance a “safety culture,” a holistic approach whose primary focus is on training, prevention and continuous improvement – with a goal of zero incidents. This compact with our workers is part of industry’s social license to operate.

Data shows this safety-first approach is achieving positive results. As our recent Energy and Communities report highlighted, the injury and illness rate for the industry fell by 45 percent from 2006 to 2015, even as thousands of new jobs were added.

Industry’s safety initiatives are recognized by important authorities on safety, such as the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which has incorporated a number of API’s recommended practices for workplace safety into the agency’s own standards.

Worker safety for oil and natural gas employees isn’t easy. Energy development is an industrial activity with lots of moving parts and a great potential for accidents. For example, working on an offshore drilling rig is far from your typical 9 to 5. While platform equipment and systems are modern, it remains tough and physically challenging work. Still, the safety environment is much improved from just a couple of decades ago.


Back in the Day

Tommy Chreene, 60, started working on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico when he was still a teenager. NPR visited with him for a story last year. Chreene was hard-nosed and pushed through adversity during some heart-stopping times – not uncommon for rig workers of that vintage. NPR:

Even though the men faced the risk of death every day, Chreene says they never showed any vulnerability. This made the work even more perilous, because the men didn't ask for help, didn't admit if they weren't up to a certain job.

Times and safety practices change. For Chreene and many fellow Shell employees, change came in 1997 when the company started building the Ursa platform in the Gulf of Mexico, which would host the world’s deepest offshore well.

Rick Fox, Ursa’s asset leader, teamed with Claire Nuer, a leadership consultant and Holocaust survivor, to build new approaches to safety, starting with the workers themselves. Nuer encouraged Fox and his employees to let go of the tendency to be in denial over potential vulnerabilities while at work. Instead, workers learned to embrace potential risks, which fostered increased safety awareness. The result was a rise in open communications and cooperation, leading to a safer and more efficient work environment.

Before long, this spread company wide. Over a 15-year period, Shell’s accident rate declined 84 percent, while at the same time, efficiency and reliability of operations surged past the industry’s previous benchmarks.


Industry Safety Standards Come First

Today, enhancing worker safety and continuously looking for ways to reduce incidents is an industry-wide core mission. A number of companies have committed themselves to engraining safety practices into everything they do. ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods:

“We often hear it said that companies must make safety a ‘top priority.’ We believe that a commitment to safety must run much deeper than simply being a ‘priority.’”

By integrating their Operations Integrity Management System (OIMS), Exxon incorporated safety practices into every move. It set up the necessary framework that continues to provide best practices in all activities of Exxon’s 75,000-plus employees and even the company’s third-party contractors. Through these efforts the company has reduced its workforce lost-time incident rate by more 80 percent over the past 17 years.

Similarly, Chevron’s Operational Excellence Management System (OEMS) elevates the mission of ensuring the health and safety of its employees. This, too, is generating positive results. In 2016, Chevron saw record lows for two key indicators – rates for days away from work and total recordable incidents.

Others are working to improve safety. Last year, Devon Energy had its longest-ever stretch without a serious injury. Still, a new company mantra reflects a continuing commitment to improving safety: “There’s no finish line when it comes to safety.”

Part of Devon’s success has come from a new policy where it treats close calls like accidents. Devon analyzes situations where no one was hurt, but could have been, as carefully as if someone was hurt. The idea is to understand what happened and develop preventive measures.

Devon also has an internal Environmental Health and Safety team that audits operations and compliance to provide increased accountability. The result has been a dramatic drop in workplace incident rates. From 2012 to 2015 injuries to Devon employees and contractors (per 200,000 hours of work) fell from 1.24 to just 0.43.

These are just a few examples. The natural gas and oil industry’s commitment to safety is embedded in the DNA of how companies produce and deliver the energy that powers the nation. A safer and more responsible industry has proven to be a more efficient, dynamic and productive one as well. The industry is proud to have become a leader in the development and implementation of safety-first workplace culture.  


Kate Wallace is an associate of research and content development for the American Petroleum Institute. Before joining API she was a researcher and policy analyst at America’s Natural Gas Alliance, and worked on pollinator conservation programs and state wildlife conservation policies before entering the energy industry. Kate graduated from the University of Connecticut with a bachelor’s degree in Resource Economics, and earned her Master of Public Administration from George Mason University. She loves taking her dogs on hikes, travelling and navigating the northern Virginia/DC craft beer and wine scenes with her friends and family.