June 21, 2018 | Ryan |

A Brief History of Safety in the Oil and Gas Industry

Farm to table.

Design to glove.

Oil sands to… your gas tank?

No, that can’t be right. Can it?

Able to trace its roots back centuries and across continents, the oil and gas industry has evolved into one of the most advanced and developed businesses in human history.

It has become the backbone of the world’s economy, a North American institution and the owner of the most discussed (and most demanded) natural resources of the past half century.

That’s quite the reputation,

Thing is though, making sense of just how all those moving parts gel together and of course, how the people that make it all happen stay safe, can be a difficult concept to grasp if you’re not working directly inside the industry.

We’ve talked about workplace safety before but for those in oil and gas, understanding the reasoning behind those safety practices can be just as important as following them.

Today, we’ll be looking at how the industry has evolved since its humble and dangerous beginnings some 130 years ago, spearheading many of the safety practices that are now staples of the workplace today.

“The Next Big Thing”: The 1850s

A bit of history first.

The mid-ninetieth century was a time of incredible innovation and expansion, both globally and across North America.

As new technology continued to enhance and enrich lives, there was a real sense that “the next big thing” was quickly approaching and all anyone would need to get there was just a push in the right direction.

That “push”? The California Gold Rush

From late 1848 to the mid-1850s, thousands of people from around the world made the often-perilous journey to the Northern California goldfields with hopes of finding their fortune.

It is estimated that close to 300,000 people had settled in the San Francisco area by the end of 1856, helping to turn the newly-minted state of California from a series of small mining towns into an international presence.

The rapid development of the area and its aftershocks are still being felt today.

The message was clear: there was big business in natural resources. Someone just had to find them.

On The Hunt For Oil and Gas: 1858 to 1901

After the Gold Rush, it didn’t take long for those eager to capitalize on natural resources to emerge.

Although the first oil wells were being drilled in China as early as 347 BCE, commercial use of the product wouldn’t really begin until the start of the Industrial Revolution centuries later.

The first commercial oil well established in North America was, like most discoveries, accidental.

The story goes, that in 1858, in what is now Oil Springs, Ontario, former New Jersey businessman James Miller Williams went to dig a well for drinking water for one of his nearby properties but found himself with an oil reservoir instead.

Not a bad trade off, right? And they say oil and water don’t mix.

Although Williams was able to parlay his discovery into some local success, it wasn’t until a year later in 1859, that Edwin Drake struck oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania becoming the one to truly set off the industry’s first true international boom.

The opportunistic flocked to the state’s “Oil Creek Valley”, although it was eventually surpassed in volume by 1900.

What was known as Pioneer Run in Oil Creek, 1865 (From the Drake Well Museum Archive)

However, widespread oil usage was still minimum at best. Even with refineries and eager drillers appearing more regularly throughout America, there was little practical use for the product.

Kerosene and coal were still dominating the energy market and with cars and electric power yet to become mass-produced for the everyday consumer, oil seemed destined to become an interesting historical footnote and not much else.

Nevertheless, come 1870, John D. Rockefeller had founded the Standard Oil Company, which quickly became the single largest refinery in the world and was popular with consumers, due to their monopoly over the market and through that, a lowering of kerosene prices.

Additionally, by the century’s closing decade, large-scale oil operations were gathering steam in the Russian Empire, and further southward in the US.

From Ohio to Indiana and into California, where oil seekers were seemingly building new derricks almost daily, the benefits of the product were starting to be realized and steadily entering mainstream use.

With larger quantities being discovered, oil was beginning to become a cheaper alternative to coal and with the advent of the light-bulb, electric power was beginning to appear in homes across North America.

The hunt was on for the reservoir which would finally give oil a seat at the global energy table.

Luckily, it wouldn’t take long.

In January of 1901, the discovery of the Spindletop Oil Field and the “Lucas Gusher” in Beaumont, Texas, officially launched both the United States and the world at large into the “Petroleum Age”, an era which has continued, in various forms, ever since.

Immediately following its discovery, the Lucas Gusher, named after its drilling organizer, Anthony Francis Lucas, was producing over 100,000 barrels a day, an unprecedented total for the time.

By December, it had cleared 17 million barrels.

An undated photo of the Spindletop oil field sometime after 1901 (Texas Energy Museum)

Texas had now become the beating heart of the international oil industry, a title it would hold well into the next century.

Although Spindletop’s usage as a viable well would decrease drastically within a year and would slow down almost completely by 1935, the doors had been blown wide open.

Readily available and easy-to-access for the first time, overnight, oil had transformed America.

Now, it just needed people to keep it afloat.

Safety Comes Second: 1880s to 1913

Even in the 1880’s, with a small but profitable oil industry still in its infancy, (it would be close to another sixty years before the boom reached Western Canada, although discoveries in natural gas were being made as early as 1883 little was done to address growing safety concerns and the dangers faced by workers.

Unlike railroads, which saw great improvements in industry safety by 1890, those in oil and gas were mostly left to fend off workplace hazards on their own.

The early years of the industry’s safety standards now read as a how-to manual on how business shouldn’t be conducted today:

  • As it was in Persia centuries before the luxury of automated machines became available, the digging of wells was often done either with shovels or by hand. Even well into the age of industrial expansion, the thought was that use would drive up labor costs.

  • Being housed in wooden or steel containers, the storage of oil was an exercise in karma, creating a highly toxic and flammable environment.

  • Oil recovery efforts were hampered by a cultural brashness and a general ignorance regarding safety, with workers often being judged on how efficient their industry experience was with the number of fingers they had left.


Up until the tail end of the nineteenth century, worker fatalities across America were not only commonplace but simply went unreported.

With the development of offshore rigs by 1896, a new host of safety challenges emerged.

Those searching for new ways to refine oil would do so while putting workers at risk, treating them as easily replaceable instead of valuable assets.

The transportation of unsafe materials and equipment was often done on cluttered platforms where workers were required to move product in close quarters, without the help of specialty machinery or automotive aids.

  • In 1913 23,000 workplace deaths were reported acorss America, the oil and gas industry accounting for roughly 22%.

Despite these growing numbers, inside the industry, worker fatalities were viewed as a simple cost of doing business.

You Can’t Push a Model T: 1919 to 1944

In the years following Word War One, oil became the most sought-after resource in the world, surpassing kerosene sales by 1919.

In post-war United States, the rise of the automobile fundamentally changed the way people lived their lives and provided another reason to increase oil production and by extension, gasoline, with a million cars sold by 1920.

Although there was a slight drop-off in production, like most industries, during the Great Depression, come World War Two, oil rapidly became an immensely valuable commodity for both the Allies and the Axis Powers.

Used in the production of synthetic rubber for tires, providing fuel for vehicles and airplanes and being utilized as lubricant in the maintenance of firearms, oil was the currency of the war effort.

Additionally, the United States and United Kingdom began a series of bombing raids on German facilities, hoping to disrupt the Nazi’s oil production, with varying degrees of success.

Behind the curtain, however, these developments meant little to grieving families.

At the expense of perfected refinery methods, unnecessary and preventable deaths were still taking place throughout the industry.

And things were about to reach a breaking point.

A Lesson Learned the Hard Way: 1944 to 1953

With the national worker death toll continuing to rise, the oil and gas industry had begun to feel the heat of internal pressure to better protect its workers.

In 1941 alone, there were 15.39 injuries per 100 full-time workers, according to the National Safety Council.

However, the industry appeared adamant not to change its safety protocols unless such a move proved to be an absolutely necessity.

Unfortunately, these changes came too late.

On October 20, 1944, a natural gas tanker being housed in Cleveland, Ohio’s east end exploded decimating one square mile and causing the deaths of almost 130 people.

As a result of the Cleveland explosion,(pictured above) safer methods for natural gas storage were developed (Cleveland Press Collection)

In the wake of the disaster, those in oil and gas, in addition to those in other resource industries, began to realize how dangerous their sectors really were, and their so-called “safety practices” quickly came under the microscope.

In 1947, the American Congress drafted the first code of federal regulations for mine workers, bringing cause to worker protection programs in that industry, after decades of neglect.

Strangely enough, it wasn’t until the 1953 film, “Thunder Bay”, that a more public light was shone on the dangers of the oil and gas industry and the many risks associated with off-shore drilling.

For the first time, the industry that many had begun to take for granted was exposed, creating a swing in public perception.

Oil and gas workers were no longer simple middlemen between the public and their product but instead, individuals with legitimate concerns about their livelihoods.

Oil and You, Oil and I: 1970 to 1988

Moving into the 1970s, the protection of oil and gas workers truly became the norm.

The Job Safety Law of 1970, gave the American government the ability to comprehensively monitor and enforce health and safety for the first time.

Once the dust settled on the 1973 Oil Crisis, oil entered the final quarter of the twentieth century with a greater global importance than ever before, with its workers and gasoline usage at the forefront.

A lineup of cars wait for gas during the 1973 oil crisis (United States Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection, Warren K. Leffler)

The use of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) was starting to gain traction, along with the use of PTA’s (self-retracting, emergency lifelines for derrickhands – those working on rigs) and the creation of on-rig and off-rig safety programs, such as relationships with local emergency response crews, helped to bring workers the protection they had been missing for close to a century.

But in July of 1988, 167 people were killed in the Piper Alpha oil rig disaster, which remains one of the most fatal accidents in recent history.

In the face of international outcry, the industry was forced to take another look inward and properly assess how to better protect its workers.

From disaster would come tough decisions.

Looking Ahead: The Next 130 Years

In the years following the Piper Alpha incident, there were real, tremendous strides taken in ensuring that large-scale disasters putting human lives at risk would not happen again, including a complete embrace of high-level PPE throughout the industry and mandatory safety programs.

Things aren’t perfect, of course.

As with any industry, the possibility of fatalities, honest mistakes or worker incompetence is present and those in the oil and gas industry deal with a much higher probability of getting injured or killed than their counterparts across the working world.

Blows to the industry over the past 30 years, such as the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon spills have shown that safety in oil and gas now extends far beyond humans.

With growing calls to reduce their environmental footprint, those in oil and gas have turned their attention to sustainability, preservation and understanding the long-term impact that their actions will have on the planet.

Most encouraging, however, is the continuing decrease of deaths in the industry, with a 36.3 percent drop, even in the midst of the early 2000s energy crisis.

Considering that the number of rigs grew by 71 percent over this time, these numbers show that PPE and safety protocol have indeed been used with great effect, far cry from 1885 or even the mid-1950s.

Even as it continues to expand throughout the world, the oil and gas industry has fully committed itself to safety and become a workforce leader in the process.

And to think it all started with the digging of a well in small town Ontario.


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Ryan Milford
About Ryan Milford