A Texas-based fracking services company has pleaded guilty, and could pay more than $2 million in fines and restitution, for its role in a fatal explosion that occurred in North Dakota in 2014.
C&J Well Services Inc. signed a plea agreement in late May that includes a $500,000 OSHA fine and $1.6 million in restitution to the estate of the employee who died in the incident.
The explosion occurred as the worker struck his torch to begin welding inside a tanker trailer that hadn’t been cleaned or vented.
Investigators discovered the company failed to properly train and supervise its welders despite having a welding safety program.
The fracking services company is based in Houston but employs several thousand workers nationally with operations in major domestic oil and gas fields.
No welder-specific training
C&J’s facility in Williston, ND, offered “fluids management” among its services, which consisted of hauling waste fluids from wells to injection wells for underground disposal, according to court documents.
Dustin Payne, one of three welders working at the facility, was employed beginning July 2014 to repair company equipment and fabricate items such as equipment stands.
Like the other two welders, Payne didn’t have any substantial prior experience working as a professional welder or working in oilfields.
The company provided the welders with the same three-day, 25-subject safety training it gave to all new hires, but didn’t offer any welder-specific training, nor did it provide its written welding policy.
C&J also failed to provide the welders with its safety handbook, which contained instructions for safe completion of various oilfield tasks, including a directive that welding on tanks should never be done until the vessel was cleaned and checked for residual explosive gases.
Payne was tasked with repairing a leaking tanker trailer that had previously contained oilfield waste water – a fluid the company knew to contain hydrocarbons.
However, the company failed to warn the welders about the inherent dangers of welding tanker trailers and, on Oct. 8, 2014, Payne struck his welding torch to the side of the tanker, causing hydrocarbon vapors inside the tanker to ignite, causing it to explode.
Payne was injured in the explosion and died from his wounds Oct. 8, 2014.
Lack of supervision, compliance monitoring
Not only did C&J fail to provide appropriate training to the three welders at the Williston facility, it also failed to provide proper supervision and its safety department failed to monitor its welding program for compliance.
Management neglected to designate a responsible person to do pre-work inspections and authorize welding jobs, as its welding policy required.
Gas meters weren’t provided for testing for explosive vapors before welding, and no hot work permits were issued for any of the 200 welding projects the welders worked on during their time with the company.
In addition to a lack of supervision, C&J’s safety department failed to make sure the welding program was compliant with OSHA standards.
The company’s welding policy required its safety professionals to conduct a semiannual review of welding-related incidents, employee complaints, number of hot work permits issued and the adequacy of welder training.
These reviews were to be completed in January and July of each year but, at the time of Payne’s death, the safety department hadn’t started the review process for the first half of 2014.
Investigators found the lack of training, supervision and compliance monitoring was the cause behind the incident, saying the company “willfully violated a federal safety standard that caused the death of employee Dustin Payne.”