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Dangerous Working Conditions and Lack of Reasonable Workplace Accommodations Concern Unions

Contributed by Emma Hartley - October 21, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

There are key sectors of the economy and workforce where unions--like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)--are rarely present, due the isolated or remote nature of some workplaces that effectively function as camps. Yet the need for union representation in some of the most difficult and dangerous working conditions is perhaps the greatest, especially where temporary and contract labor is widely used. Those contract workers, for instance who are employed in oil refineries often get only minimal safety training and were sent from one work site to another by the employment agencies who hired them out at far below union rates to major multinational oil companies. One such worker told the IWW of how at his work site, even his team's supervisor was unclear about safety regulations concerning hazardous materials and expected workers to evacuate the work site using a path and area that were both heavily contaminated. The oil industry, as well as those sectors of the economy that rely on employment agencies to offer cheap, temporary labor are often black holes for workers, where there remains much work to be done in terms of workers' rights.  

Unfair Pay and Poor Working Conditions in Oil and Gas

A recent comprehensive study by the US Department of Labor highlights a disturbing trend in sectors of the labor market where unions like IWW are not present. According to a ProPublica review of workplace hazard cases investigated by the Department, those working within the gas and oil field are seriously underpaid and are required to work in dangerous conditions. Especially troubling is the growing problem of "misclassification," in which companies seek to save money by considering un-unionized full-time employees as contract labor. These employees are paid on an hourly basis, as opposed to being salaried, and miss out on key benefits. Not all employees are paid more than minimum wage, which is the law in many states for this sector, and those remunerated on an hourly basis often do not receive fair pay for overtime hours. The Department of Labor uncovered $13 million in unpaid back wages in the oil and gas sector, impacting 9,100 workers. (1) Speaking to The Pacific Standard, IWW representative Alex Lotorto noted that unions have great difficulty organizing and defending the rights of workers located in remote camps. Additionally, the gas and oil sectors have traditionally been non-unionized, which makes it even more difficult to break in. 

Dangerous Work Environments

With little to no union activity, not only are oil and gas sector workers poor and unfairly paid, but they must also contend with a dangerous working environment. According to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fatal accidents are at least seven times more likely to occur in offshore oil and gas operations than in any other industry. The death rate among oil and gas workers in the US stands at 27 per 100,000, compared to an average of 3.8 per 100,000 in all other industries. (2) The rates of serious, but not fatal injury are higher (impacting 2.3% of all workers in this sector), but public officials like Interior Secretary Ken Salazar are quick to point to the progress in this area, noting that the demand for safer conditions came from key players in the industry and these calls are finally being heard. (3)

Yet many note that painting a more hopeful picture can be misleading and detract attention from key states where the industry is truly failing its workers in the fields of safety. Texas, for instance, has the most fatalities of any states in one year (a total of 106), according to data gathered in late 2012. (4) Over three fourths of the 310,000 gas and oil workers are employed by companies in Texas, Louisiana, California and Oklahoma. (5)

What Happens to Injured or Disabled Workers?

One of the major questions and concerns in a sector where fatality levels are high and where contract and temporary workers often face difficult or dangerous working conditions is what happens to them in case of serious injury of disability. While employers may be prohibited by law from discriminating based on one's disability, this does not always cover what may happen to workers who become disabled on the job. Labor rights activists and human resources specialists note that there is an expectation that in both the United States and in the UK employers will make "reasonable adjustments" to accommodate a worker who has either become disabled due to an incident at work, or while employed by a company, yet these accommodations are most often impossible to implement for the type of high intensity physical labor necessary in the oil and gas sector. Passed in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), even companies that hire manual laborers must be willing to explore adjustments or modifications to equipment, in order to reasonably accommodate an employee with a disability. Yet this rarely applies to the oil and gas sector, especially when firms decide to use third party employment agencies, in order to hire temporary, casual workers, who would not receive the same protection under the ADA as regular, salaried staff. 

While there have been some positive steps in creating a safer environment for workers in oil and gas, it is undeniable that more fatal accidents continue to occur in this sector than in any other and that the lack of a union presence means that workers end up in temporary, low paying jobs with few, if any benefits. For the all the progress that Ken Salazar and others speak about, there is much work to be done, both in terms of a fair pay, but also ensuring a safe working environment. 


(1) "Rigging the Wages of our Country's Oil and Gas Industry Workers," Pacific Standard. 

(2) "Fatal Injuries in Offshore Oil and Gas Operations," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

(3) "Oil and Gas Isn't Just One of the Richest Industries, it's One of the Safest," Forbes. 

(4) "Where is the Oil and Gas Industry Most Dangerous?Inside Energy

(5) "People Who Work in the Oil and Gas Industries," Petro Strategies.

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