A veteran oil-field worker has won compensation after a seven-year fight to prove that a subsidiary of Houston-based drilling giant Nabors Industries Inc. dodged paying his accident claim after he fell on an Alaska oil rig and suffered life-altering head injuries.
The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board awarded Mitch McNamee $80,000 in back pay and other expenses. His attorney was awarded $120,000 in fees, and California insurers will recoup from Nabors some of the medical costs they paid.
McNamee’s daughter, Christy Ferrell, said her father’s fight to get Nabors to acknowledge the accident was “never about the money – it was about what was right, and that’s what came out.”
“I’m pleased with it – it’s been a long time coming, though,” said McNamee, now 68.
The safety record of Nabors’ subsidiaries in land-based drilling in Texas and North Dakota has drawn attention over the last decade because of a string of deaths and injuries. McNamee’s accident was detailed in a 2014 Houston Chronicle investigation of U.S. oil-field safety, “Peril in the Oil Patch.”
Nabors Industries Inc. owns and operates the world’s largest land-based drilling fleet and has subsidiaries that operate worldwide.
The Alaska board handed down its decision Jan. 11, and the company did not appeal within a 30-day window. Nabors did not respond to requests for comment on the ruling.
McNamee was 62 and had worked in the oil fields for decades when, in October 2011, he slipped on oily drilling mud during a midnight shift, hit his head and slid on his back toward a chute used to move lengths of pipe from the base of Rig 245 – a four-story tower perched on the edge of Alaska’s North Slope.
It took his daughter nine months after the accident to arrange for brain surgery and the implant of a shunt that saved his life, his medical records show. By then, he had suffered permanent damage and could no longer work.
Discrepancy in records
McNamee spent years assembling far-flung witnesses and documents in an effort to prove that his longtime employer failed to report his accident, cut off his insurance and, he contends, sent him home on a plane “to die” after symptoms of his head injury became apparent.
McNamee contended that he called a company office immediately after being flown home from the North Slope to report his fall to a human resources official and request a doctor’s appointment but was denied help and told he’d been laid off.
Nabors had long argued that McNamee reported his injury too late to collect a compensation claim. A spokesman told the Chronicle in 2014 that the company was informed about his fall months after McNamee’s surgery.
Nabors’ own initial injury reports, however, show that “it was notified of Employee’s injury on October 16, 2011 – the very day Employee was flown off the Slope, not on July 26, 2012, as it now contends,” the Alaska ruling says.
Nabors was ordered to pay for travel, medical and legal bills related to the accident, and the subsequent long-running dispute. The company also was ordered to pay McNamee workers’ compensation payments for a limited time, since McNamee was unable to return to work because of the accident and other medical problems.
In previous interviews about the case, Nabors has defended its safety record and insisted that it reports accidents as required. Its companies reported a string of fatal accidents during the U.S. oil boom that began in 2007.
From 2007-14, the Chronicle found, three Nabors subsidiaries - Nabors Drilling USA, Nabors Well Services Co. and Nabors Completion and Production Services Co. – together had reported at least 18 fatal accidents or work site deaths to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in Texas, North Dakota and other states.
Nabors Drilling USA has reported at least one additional death to OSHA since 2015, according to OSHA accident reporting data available online. Last year, a Texas man was chopped into bits by an industrial-sized blender at a Nabors drilling site near the New Mexico border. Luis Velazquez, 42, was killed when a machine used to stir drilling mud was turned on as he was cleaning its giant metal blades.
OSHA fined Nabors for serious violations in that case. The company has appealed the penalty.
Velazquez’s widow has filed a civil lawsuit in Harris County, alleging the company was negligent in the death.
Alaska records show that company employees told Alaska investigators shifting stories about McNamee’s accident. A former Alaska-based human resources director for Nabors supplied records that show the accident was reported in October 2011. The same person told the board she believed the company’s health and safety committee had looked into McNamee’s reported injury but then repeatedly stated she did not know “for sure” whether the employee’s injury was investigated.
McNamee’s detailed firsthand account of his own accident was bolstered by other oil-field workers and documents unearthed by his daughter.
Ferrell first learned of her father’s injury only after she arrived to visit him in Anchorage, Ala., months after the accident. Ferrell found the formerly fit roustabout having trouble both walking and speaking. She brought him home with her to Bakersfield, Calif., in 2012 and took him to specialists who discovered a buildup of cerebral spinal fluid in the brain and ordered emergency surgery, according to medical records that are part of the case.
Ferrell had started law school but quit to help her father. She ended up being licensed as a private investigator as she combed through records and websites to find oil-field workers who might know about his accident. Ferrell said she often ran into walls.
“There’s a culture of silence on the North Slope,” she said. Some called it “the blue wall” – after the color of the coveralls Nabors’ workers wear.
A few agreed to testify before the workers’ compensation board or provide sworn statements about dangers they observed on the same rig and about the oilfield culture of not reporting accidents.
“It’s been a long, long arduous fight – and a person who gets injured at work shouldn’t have to fight this hard,” Ferrell said. “You shouldn’t have to fight for something that you’re entitled to under the law.”