Five Years After The BP Oil Disaster Is It Safer To Work Offshore?

Apr 19, 2015

Oil workers practice fire fighting at the Fletcher Technical Community College in Houma.
Credit Jesse Hardman / WWNO

Five years ago an off-shore explosion killed 11 workers and created a massive 210 million gallon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. There have been questions ever since about how the accident could have been prevented and how to improve off-shore safety standards.

Carl Moore started working on off-shore supply boats back in the 1980s.

"When I started it was 'don't put your hand there,' and it was told by somebody that had three fingers missing. That was the safety training I had." He said most off-shore workers simply memorized a test to get safety credentials. Moore’s now the dean of the marine and petroleum safety center at the Fletcher Technological Community College in Houma. 

Career services board at Fletcher Technical Community College in Houma.
Credit Jesse Hardman / WWNO

The new $7 million state-funded facility opened this spring. And it’s hands-on. Simulated helicopter crashes in a swimming pool, and firefighting drills.

Michael Brannon is one of ten oil workers decked out in helmets and yellow jackets. He’s aiming a hose at a 5-foot-high pit fire. Brannon says the biggest safety incentive in off-shore work is simple:

“Everyone wants to go home.”

And five years after the BP oil disaster, the fact that 11 people didn’t make it home from their shifts on the Deepwater Horizon still weighs on Brannon. “It’s just a tragedy. It’s important to keep in fact that good men lost their lives and their families are the ones that suffered.”

After that tragedy the federal government created a new agency for off-shore safety. The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, or BSEE has updated rig safety standards, and increased on-site inspections. Brian Salerno heads the agency.

“It costs money to be safe. It costs even more when you have an incident. The companies that understand that realize the money they spend is a good investment. The ones that are seeking to cut corners, sooner or later that catches up to them.”

And Salerno says he’s concerned the recent drop in oil prices could undermine safety. “Potentially you could see reductions in maintenance, reductions in training of people.”

Off-shore is the main job in Terrebonne Parish. It seems like most sons from the tiny town of Chauvin have known each other forever. That’s because they probably have. Kurt Lirette and Blaze LeCompt met in grade school. And they both wound up working in oil.  The industry has been good to them financially. But it’s also meant lots of time away from home. And there’s the constant worry about accidents.

“If a helicopter goes down, you look to see if its somebody flying for you, flying for your company. If its one of your company platforms that's on fire."

That's Kurt Lirette, who works on a production platform in the Gulf of Mexico. He commutes by helicopter. He’s saw a coworker get crushed on a rig. Last month he helped evacuate 35 workers from a platform that almost got hit by a barge. 

Childhood friends from Chauvin and fellow off-shore veterans, Blaise LeCompt and Kurt Lirette
Credit Jesse Hardman

Kurt’s buddy, Blaise LeCompt, now works mostly on land as hazard specialist. He says despite the BP disaster, the industry can still be complacent about safety. “We got an oilfield mentality. You want to get to work and make some money, so you can go home and spend it.”

Offshore work can pay a six-figure salary with no college degree. LeCompt says when he’s leading a safety training, he jolts workers out of their comfort zone with a unique ice breaker. “'If somebody was going to die today where would they be standing?' And that usually gets their attention.”

Blaise LeCompt believes the oil industry is safe, enough. Two of his sons joined the business. Kurt Lirette made sure his kids didn’t follow in his footsteps. His dad took him straight from high school into the oil industry. “I graduated on May the 5th of 1972. May the the 6th I was in the back seat of an Impala on the way to my first job with my father.”

When Kurt’s kids were college age, he brought them to work too, but for the opposite reason. “So they could see what daddy did for a living, and so they could get a hint, this is not what you want to do.” After college one son wound up in Germany, the other New York. Lirette couldn’t have been happier.

Support for WWNO's Coastal Desk comes from the Walton Family Foundation, Kabacoff Family Foundation and Greater New Orleans Foundation.