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Inquiry into oil well deaths focuses on clothing

This is the remnants of an exploded oil rig near Williston the day after a fire at a newly drilled oil well killed Brendan Wegner, 21, of Montello, Wis., and Ray Hardy, of Mohall. Two other men were critically injured. An investigation is underway to determine if the men should have been wearing fire-resistant clothing and other protective gear.

FARGO (AP) -- Officials say an investigation into an oil well explosion in North Dakota that killed two workers will center on whether the men should have been wearing fire-resistant clothing under a federal safety policy that has drawn criticism from some drilling companies.

The policy, explained last year in a memo by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, spells out when protective equipment should be worn by workers to protect against flash fires during drilling operations.

OSHA maintains that such equipment saves lives, but some drilling companies and groups have balked -- and one even threatened legal action -- saying the requirements are too extensive and costly.

The Sept. 14 fire at a newly drilled oil well near Williston killed Brendan Wegner, 21, of Montello, Wis., and Ray Hardy of Mohall. Doug Hysjulien of Williston and Michael Twinn of Tioga were still in critical condition Tuesday in the burn unit at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, an official there said.

The men had been working at a rig owned by Carlson Well Services Inc. of Powers Lake. Houston-based Oasis Petroleum Inc. owns the well, which had been producing for about a month. Neither company has a significant history of inspections, according to OSHA records. Inspections typically are prompted by a complaint, an accident or a referral alerting OSHA to a potential safety problem.

Eric Brooks, OSHA's assistant director in Bismarck, said the investigation will take up to six months. Carlson officials declined to comment. An Oasis official did not immediately respond to a phone message.

Because it's already known that the men weren't wearing the protective gear, the investigation will determine if their work environment or their assigned tasks called for them to be wearing the specialized clothing.

According to an OSHA safety memo issued in March 2010, companies risk fines if the clothes aren't provided during production-related operations, such as valve changes, transferring hydrocarbons, tank heating and using open flames. Fines can range from $7,000 to $70,000, depending on whether a violation was willful.

"The predominance of employers do take the precautions," Brooks said. "But there are some that, for whatever reason, don't seem to embrace them. It might be the cost; it might be that they don't think it's necessary."

Brooks said the memo simply clarified an existing policy but others saw it as a new set of rules.

Holly Hopkins, senior policy adviser for the American Petroleum Institute, said OSHA should have solicited feedback from companies before issuing the memo.

"Our industry is committed to a goal of zero fatalities, zero injuries and zero incidents," Hopkins said. "We believe that OSHA should have gone to formal public rulemaking process if they were basically going to change the rules."

The accident brought to three the number of oil patch-related deaths in the state since July 1, the start of the fiscal year. There were five in the previous 12 months, up from three in the year before that.

The numbers have been climbing as North Dakota has grown to become the nation's fourth-largest oil producer.

Kenny Jordan, executive director of the Association of Energy Service Companies, told The Huffington Post last year that the requirements could cost the industry up to $50 million immediately. Jordan did not return phone messages left by The Associated Press.

Steve Johnson, owner of California-based Safety Supply America, which distributes clothing that meets OSHA standards for oil workers, said a basic coverall sells for about $50. But in general it costs about $100 to $150 to outfit a worker in the summer, and $200 to $300 in the winter, Johnson said.

Bryan Klipfel, director of the North Dakota Workforce Safety and Insurance agency, said he questions those who cite cost as a deterrent in providing the clothing.

"Overall I think they are trying to make safety a top priority, but I can't guarantee that every company has that as their top priority," he said. "It's good business to make sure your employees are safe and you don't get employees injured. Financially, if that is what they are interested in, that is going to be a benefit to them."

Klipfel said his agency is considering offering incentives for companies that provide personal protection equipment.

Most of the flame-resistant clothing looks like typical work wear, including shirts, pants, coverall and jackets. Safety Supply America also offers protective hard hat liners, baseball caps, knit caps, hoods and bandanas.

Brooks said the apparel has saved lives as recently as this summer, when the Cyclone 18 rig exploded near Beach, N.D., and injured three men.

Rick Laursen, manager of health, safety and security for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said he believes the focus on any well fire investigation shouldn't be on what clothes were worn, but on how the flammable mixture escaped into the atmosphere.

The clothing is "what's known as the last line of defense, and it really isn't even a defense," Laursen said.