'I live to die': Lawsuit shows continued dangers of working in Texas's energy industry
Jeff Springman had no reason to expect that anything would go awry at the Permian Basin oil and gas well he was dispatched to near Pecos, Texas on that October night in 2019.
He was working as a crude oil transport driver for Pilot Transportation, a company that contracted with Diamondback Energy to load and transport oil. He'd been working in the oil and gas industry for more than 15 years, a job that had taken him to states including Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, and, finally, Texas. That day, Springman was training a new driver.
He remembers noticing that the name of the site they were dispatched to didn't match the well number. He called Diamondback, which directed him to a different lease site, and also called a Pilot driver, who confirmed — and told them that everything on the original dispatch was the same. "Go ahead, it's safe," the driver said. Other employees on the new site confirmed it was safe as well.
Springman and his trainee climbed to the top of the well hatch. When he opened it, Springman was blown back by a cloud of noxious gasses — including high quantities of hydrocarbon vapors.
He was knocked unconscious immediately. By the time he came to, he had been pulled away from the hatch by his trainee. His hydrogen sulfide monitor was ringing — indicating the presence of the sour-smelling toxic gas at low explosive limits. Within three weeks, facing constant pain, vomiting, and diarrhea, Springman could no longer work. Today, almost four years after the incident, he can barely walk. "My teeth are brittle because I have no iron [in my body]," he told Facing South. "It hurts to chew, but if I don't try to eat, what’s the alternative?"
Springman is now suing Diamondback for damages to cover the cost of his medical care, as well as years of lost earnings and wages. He has a young daughter whose future he worries about. "I live to die every day," he said, his voice cracking. "What drives me to stay alive is sticking it to these guys. They've got me pissed." (Diamondback did not respond to requests for comment.)
In 2021, the most recent year for which data is available, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that 19 people died on the job in Texas's oil, gas, and mining industries. (The agency does not report the data individually by sector, but a BLS representative told Facing South that the category primarily counts oil and gas workers, since the mining industry is relatively small in Texas.) Nationally, 58 oil and gas workers died in the field, and there were 6,200 reported nonfatal injuries among fossil fuel workers.
The South contains more than a third of the nation's oil and gas workforce. Eleven percent of all energy workers — a category that includes jobs in fuel, electric power generation, motor vehicles, and energy efficiency — are in Texas, tied with California for the most of any state in the nation. Worker protections across the South are weak: The region has the worst wages and worker safety laws, as well as few protections for collective bargaining and organizing.
The oil and gas industry faces pressure to phase out fossil fuels, as concerns about climate change have led many countries to — at least nominally — call for carbon-free energy alternatives. Fossil fuel workers could be particularly primed to move into the clean energy sector, advocacy groups like the Environmental Defense Fund say. And organized labor has been calling for an energy transition that both improves environmental conditions and prioritizes worker safety. The renewable energy industry has seen some of the same issues as oil and gas: Earlier this summer, a solar company in Utah was fined for sending workers onto icy rooftops without proper gear, and in 2019, a Texas wind turbine manufacturer settled a case with the National Labor Relations Board for anti-union activity.
Cases like Springman's continue to shed light on the need for better worker safety in the fossil fuel industry. The same month that Springman was injured, a couple in Odessa, Texas, died from hydrogen sulfide poisoning at an Aghorn Energy facility. Jacob Dean, an employee of the small oil producer, went to check on a pump and was hit with such high concentrations of the gas that he died immediately. When he didn't come home, his wife loaded their children in the car and went to look for him. She found his body, but was also exposed to the gas and died in the same spot. Their children, who had been left in the car with the engine running, are now under the care of grandparents. In 2022, the vice president of Aghorn was indicted for violating the Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act and obstructing an OSHA investigation into the Deans’ death.
Springman credits his own survival in part to the fact that his trainee got him out of the gas quickly. The process that Springman followed that day in manually checking tanks is standard — despite the fact that OSHA has long identified it as deadly.
Sharon Wilson, the founder of a watchdog group called Oilfield Witness, has seen dozens of oil workers just like Jeff Springman enveloped in clouds of vapor and gas. As a former field advocate for Earthworks, an environmental watchdog, she spent years roaming around oil fields in Texas and Colorado with infrared cameras that make visible the climate-warming gasses that escape oil and gas wells.
Until Wilson talked to Springman, she didn't realize that the tanks, spewing toxic, climate-warming gasses, were left open to protect workers on the job. "I asked Jeff, 'It can’t be that hard to close a tank hatch. Why do workers do that?'" Springman told her, "That’s to protect the next guy, so he doesn't get blasted like I did."
The cloud of gasses that escapes those hatches can, in some cases, harm the health of neighboring residents who are exposed to elevated levels of hazardous chemicals. Methane leaking from the wells causes more warming in the atmosphere, contributing to climate change and increases in deadly extreme weather events. But the first to be exposed — and often the ones most at risk — are workers on the ground.
OSHA recorded nine fatalities due to workers opening unsafely pressurized tank hatches in a five-year period from 2010 to 2014. The agency recommends, but does not mandate, that companies use remote tank hatch indicators to protect workers from deadly levels of gas exposure. Neither OSHA nor the state's Railroad Commission, which regulates Texas's energy industry, conduct sufficient or thorough safety inspections, reports have found.
"Most people in my position are dead in six months," Springman said. His partner, a nurse of 25 years at a Lubbock hospital where workers are sometimes sent after accidents like his, has been taking care of him as his condition worsens. "She's seen people like me come in gassed and they die there. They come out in body bags."
Casualties aren't limited to the upstream sector that Springman worked in, where oil and gas is drilled. At refineries, the work can be just as dangerous: pressurized equipment, toxic chemicals, and heavy machinery all present threats to workers' safety.
"Based on the number of [workplace injury lawyers'] billboards you see in Southeast Louisiana or West Texas, I would say it's fairly common that there are catastrophic injuries," said Megan Biven, the founder of a worker advocacy group called True Transition. According to a report from the organization, oil and gas workers make up less than 0.1% of American workers but 3% of all injuries reported to OSHA.
True Transition's survey also found that nearly a third of oil and gas workers surveyed feel that safety procedures at their plant were solely designed to "shift liability on to the worker." Thirty-five percent reported that they had been asked to engage in unsafe working practices. Companies have broad leeway to create their own standards and procedures at each plant, Biven said, as opposed to following uniform federal guidelines. "There is no reason that the federal government can't flex that muscle to make things safer," Biven said.
That work often falls to unions, which represent less than 10% of the oil, gas, and mining workforce. Darrell Kyle, a former Exxon employee who was part of the United Steelworkers Union leadership, spent years drafting safety procedures with managers at Exxon in Beaumont.
Employees, he said, were often worried about their job security and getting their paychecks to support families. The union worked to create policies that workers could rely on when they felt they were being asked to do something dangerous.
"I used to tell my guys, if that supervisor comes in and tells you to jump off the top of that tank, are you going to do it?" he said. "Don't put yourself in a situation where your wife and your kids are crying, and I have to go attend a funeral because you went to do something without saying, 'This is what the procedure says.'"
The union spent years pushing for the company to rewrite the internal permit process — a chain of command that required several people to sign off on work orders.
Kyle recalled an accident from nearly a decade ago that left two workers dead and several more injured. "An exchanger was shut down, and they were cleaning it out — they couldn’t bust all the bolts off so they tried to blow torch them off." But the equipment had flammable residue on it, and when the workers turned on the torches, it set off an explosion.
In a subsequent investigation, the union found that safety inspectors initially didn’t want to issue an internal permit to use a blowtorch. Exxon settled a lawsuit with the families of victims for an undisclosed amount in 2016.
During the pandemic and a subsequent contract fight with the union that left long-time workers locked out of the job for almost 10 months, Kyle said that Exxon laid off employees and many never came back, taking early retirements — including Kyle himself — or moving on to other jobs. And the company ultimately ended up chipping away at the procedures he helped craft, he said. (Exxon did not respond to requests for comment.)
Across the industry, Biven said, sites are "viciously understaffed." True Transition's surveys have found that workers want more staff onsite to improve safety conditions — and nearly a quarter of the surveyed workers cited health and safety issues as a reason they would consider taking a different job. "They're recruiting a lot of young people, and what we were told anecdotally was that a lot of these people have no training," Biven said. "They're not getting the proper safety precaution training. They're thrown into the mix too early."
Despite the current climate crisis, oil and gas companies are reporting record-breaking profits. In 2022, four companies — Exxon, Shell, ConocoPhillips and Chevron — reported a combined $1 trillion in sales.
Labor advocates are also looking ahead towards the growing renewable energy industry. The Energy Information Administration estimates that Texas will install 7.7 gigawatts of solar power and two gigawatts of wind power in 2023, leading the nation by several gigawatts in terms of new renewable energy capacity. Still, wind farms and solar installation in West Texas pose some of the same worker safety issues as fossil fuels: isolation, heat exhaustion, heavy machinery.
And without stronger federal regulation and commitments from the renewable energy industry, the same occupational safety hazards found in oil and gas could repeat. In Texas, state lawmakers have spent years undermining labor protections. For example, the state doesn't require most private companies to have workers' compensation insurance. This summer, the state legislature voided local ordinances mandating water breaks for construction workers. After legislative attempts failed to do so, the state’s highest court has also prohibited cities from enforcing local paid sick leave policies.
"Historically, what we've seen from the environmental space is people saying, 'We're going to shut down [unionized] coal power plants — but don't worry, we'll train people to go install solar panels in West Texas for half the pay and no benefits,'" said Bo Delp, the director of Texas Climate Jobs Project. "That's really hard work, and we need to fix those jobs, too."
This story has been updated to clarify the reading on Springman's hydrogen sulfide monitor.
Amal Ahmed is a freelance journalist in Dallas, Texas. She covers environmental and climate issues, with a focus on justice and equity. Her work has been published in a variety of publications, including the Texas Observer, the Texas Tribune, Texas Monthly, Southerly, Popular Science and The Guardian.