The LA Times has an interesting portrait of the survivors of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico – the topic that has distracted me from keeping up with content over here at Work in Progress - about the risks of their jobs.

The conversations with offshore oil workers seem remarkably similar to those with coal miners. The risky work environment brings with it a lucrative paycheck, for far more pay than these workers could make working on land. At the same time, workers know every day they’re out in the middle of the ocean, dealing with potentially explosive materials that can put their lives at risk at any moment.

Yet for workers like Eugene, there remains the siren song of offshore work, the same one that lured them to the desolate waters of the Gulf of Mexico in the first place: a generous blue-collar salary that is tough to match. A roughneck, or general laborer on the drill deck, can make as much as $47,500, and salaries for more seasoned and skilled workers are higher. [...]

“Man, I don’t know,” Eugene said recently from the safety of his home in Slidell, La. “I don’t want to put my family through that [again]. They thought I died…. But we’ve got to do what we do to support our families. We’ve got to take the risk.”

The acceptance of risk is at the heart of the distinctive culture of the offshore oil business. Much like the military, its workers are constantly reminded of the potentially fatal consequences of careless actions.

Like the military, there is a mix of pride and swagger that comes with the doing of dirty, dangerous and crucial work — and at home, there is often a worried spouse.

Eugene’s sentiments were echoed by other workers, some of whom are suing Transocean and BP, others who are deciding not to do so. A common refrain echoed: it’s good money to help their families. An offer they can’t refuse.

Davis, 36, had been working offshore for about four years, most recently with a challenging schedule — 28 days on, 14 off.

It was tough for the father of a 6-year-old girl. But there were few other jobs near his home in Tylertown, Miss. “You don’t have too many,” he said. “You could drive trucks or work at McDonald’s or Wal-Mart.” [...]

“Most of these guys, the overwhelming majority, are guys with a high school education; there’s probably no other industry they can make this kind of money in,” said Texas attorney Tony Buzbee, who is representing the two men, as well as other survivors.

Like in the mountains of West Virginia, there are scant economic opportunities available for which high-school educated men can make a decent middle-class living with one job. While the culture of offshore drilling locations doesn’t permeate an area like coal mines do, the men involved in offshore drilling – up to 30,000 in the Gulf throughout the course of a year – are as willing to take risks as coal miners do.

Offshore drilling is almost as dangerous as coal mining for the workers involved. Since 2006, 41 workers died and 1300 were injured while working on offshore oil rigs, according to the LA Times. Compare that to 69 dead and more than 11,000 injuries in coal mines in the same time, according to available data from MSHA. While not an apples to apples comparison, as MSHA almost certainly has better injury reporting than MMS, it’s a useful comparison to show that both are dangerous, and potentially deadly, occupations.

One survivor of the Deepwater Horizon explosion told 60 Minutes that from what he saw before the disaster, it was clear BP deliberately cut corners to make it easier to extract oil later. As a result of that decision, eleven workers died, and untold destruction is unleashed in the Gulf of Mexico.

The workers who daily risk their lives to provide our energy just to make a middle class paycheck deserve not just accountability, but safety. I’d love to see Members of Congress take a comprehensive look at energy worker safety legislation to address clear ignorance on behalf of the oil and coal mining industries with regard to worker safety. After all, profit is profit, workers be damned.

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