Hilcorp paid a $25,000 fine after a worker died last year on its North Slope drilling rig

A flow line curves above the horizon on the western North Slope. (Elizabeth Harball/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

Oil company Hilcorp and one of its drilling contractors each paid more than $25,000 in penalties earlier this year after a worker was killed last December on one of Hilcorp’s rigs on the North Slope.

Shawn Huber, 36, died at the Milne Point field when the rig’s operator accidentally opened a set of hydraulic jaws and dropped a 700-pound, 31-foot section of drilling pipe that struck Huber in the head, according to the companies’ internal investigation subsequently submitted to state workplace safety regulators. The operator was distracted, according to the investigation, because he was training a colleague.

[Read the companies’ internal investigation into the accident]

Some six months later, Hilcorp paid $25,000 in state-assessed fines for violating a pair of safety regulations – one that says employers shouldn’t allow rig workers to stand or pass under “suspended loads,” and another that requires appropriate disinfectant to be used after a blood spill. A Hilcorp supervisor instructed rig workers to clean up after the accident, and some of them weren’t wearing gloves, exposing them to bloodborne illnesses, according to a state investigator’s report.

Hilcorp’s contractor, Kuukpik Drilling, paid its own $30,000 fine for five violations – two that were the same as Hilcorp’s, two more that had to do with unsafe use of a stepladder, and another for the company’s failure to protect Huber from the hazards of his job.

Huber, who was working for Kuukpik, had more than 10 years of drill rig experience, and was married with three children, according to his obituary.

Public interest in Hilcorp, a privately owned company, has risen sharply since the company announced in August that it would buy BP’s assets in Alaska for $5.6 billion. If approved by state regulators, the purchase would give Hilcorp a major stake in two of the highest-profile assets in Alaska’s oil industry, the Prudhoe Bay field and the trans-Alaska pipeline.

[Read more: BP moves to exit Alaska, relinquishing role as operator of Prudhoe Bay]

The details of Huber’s death and the subsequent penalties were laid out in a pair of inquiries conducted by the state’s workplace safety agency, Alaska Occupational Safety and Health, and released in response to a public records request. The agency, known as AKOSH, found both Hilcorp and Kuukpik Drilling responsible for the accident, which appears to be the first worker death on the North Slope’s oil fields since 2012.

[Read the state’s full case files on the accident: Hilcorp | Kuukpik Drilling]

Officials at Kuukpik Drilling referred requests to parent company Kuukpik Corp., whose chief executive, Lanston Chinn, declined to comment.

A Hilcorp spokesman, Justin Furnace, responded to a request for an interview with a prepared statement that called Huber’s death “a tragic event for the entire Hilcorp Alaska family.”

“We have worked closely with AKOSH on their investigation, as well as our own,” Furnace said. “We have reviewed the findings of this work closely to determine how we can apply lessons learned to improve workplace safety with both our employees and with contractors that provide services to us in the field. The safety of our personnel and anyone associated with our operation is always our top priority.”

The accident took place at the aging Milne Point field, northwest of Prudhoe Bay, which Hilcorp co-owns with BP.

Huber’s 11-person crew began their work shift at midnight Dec. 7 after 18 hours off-duty, according to the internal investigation written by officials from Hilcorp, Kuukpik Drilling and a third company, Aurora Drilling. After a short safety meeting, workers started “normal drill rig activities,” pulling segments of drilling pipe out of the well, the investigation said.

Two hours later, Huber was on the rig floor, walking around a piece of drilling pipe that was coming out of the well. He was spray painting it, to indicate that the end was damaged.

The drill’s operator was working from a console, controlling a set of hydraulic jaws used to pull the 31-foot sections of pipe from the well, then lower them off the floor. At the same time, he was describing his actions to another worker that he was mentoring, the investigation said.

As the drill operator lowered a piece of pipe that had previously come out of the ground, he was describing how to open the jaws and release it when he accidentally took the two steps required to do so, according to the investigation and a separate memo written by state regulators.

When he realized what was happening, the operator tried to reverse himself by pressing a “close” button on his joystick, “while also yelling over the intercom to alert the crew,” the investigation said.

Two other workers on the rig floor heard the operator’s yell and reacted, the investigation said. But Huber did not appear to respond, and he was hit by the top end of the pipe as it fell an estimated 28 feet. Trained medical responders arrived within three minutes, and a nurse practitioner arrived within nine minutes, but Huber was pronounced dead roughly an hour later at Milne Point’s clinic, according to the companies’ investigation.

The investigation identified two “root causes” for the accident – first, that the drill operator was “performing two tasks at the same time” by operating and mentoring. And second, there were “contradictory requirements” when it came to workers’ exposure to overhead loads. The companies had “safe work practices” in place to limit exposure, the investigation said, but employees were still sometimes exposed when they were working.

Kuukpik Drilling’s safety manager, Sonny Kula, told a state regulators that “the procedure that was being followed was normal operating procedure.”

After the accident, the companies said they’d put several safeguards in place to correct the workplace safety violations.

First, at the request of a Hilcorp drilling superintendent, a technology company changed the rig’s controls to block the operator’s normal two-step procedure from opening the hydraulic jaws within a specific range of heights, unless the operator took a special third step to override the restriction. That system was tested within three days of the accident.

Second, Hilcorp and Kuukpik Drilling sent regulators a diagram that set out a “restricted work area,” and a list of tasks that are barred while the rig is operating, like the one Huber was doing. “Workers with essential operations are permitted within the fall zone, but not directly under the load,” Kula wrote in a memo to state regulators.

And third, Kuukpik Drilling required all its workers to retake a bloodborne illness training program.

The companies’ assessment of the accident’s root cause – the driller’s distraction and the “contradictory requirements” around overhead loads – appears to be “thoughtful and thorough,” said Deb Kelly, who spent three years supervising AKOSH as a top official at the Alaska Department of Labor.

But it’s the companies’ responsibility to make sure that when workers do make mistakes like the rig operator’s, the results aren’t catastrophic, added Kelly, who reviewed the state’s case files at Alaska Public Media’s request.

“An employer should never put employees in a position where a moment’s inattention will cause a fatality,” she said. “You have to have as many layers of safety as you can practically apply, so that a lot of things have to go wrong before someone gets hurt.”

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