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The Department of Labor failed to show that a drilling contractor violated the general duty clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act after five workers died in an explosion at an Oklahoma natural gas well.
In Secretary of Labor v. Patterson-UTI Drilling Co. LLC, the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission vacated a citation against the drilling company after holding that the DOL failed to show the steps the company could have taken to abate the danger to its workers.
The Jan. 22, 2018, explosion occurred in Quinton, Oklahoma. Three of the workers killed were employed by Patterson-UTI, which had been hired to remove a worn-out drill bit from the bottom of the well, which was owned by Red Mountain Energy.
After the incident, an Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspector levied nine citations against the company with fines totaling $73,000.
Patterson-UTI appealed, and the company and the DOL reached a settlement prior to trial on all but one citation — the violation of the general duty clause — which went before the review commission for resolution.
Although the DOL established the existence of a recognized hazard that led to the deaths of the five workers, the commission ruled that the agency failed to prove that Patterson-UTI’s existing methods of abating it were inadequate or to show that more effective means of removing the workplace danger were available.
The commission noted the drilling company had adequate safety controls, and that although managers and workers at the site failed to take actions that “could have prevented this catastrophe,” the DOL did not meet its burden of proof with respect to the means of abatement.
The court vacated the citation for violation of the general duty clause. Three serious violations and two other-than-serious violations with fines totaling $65,000 were affirmed.