Advancements in the petroleum industry have made the oil patch a much safer place to work than when oil first flowed in Kern County.

But hazards remain.

Just last August, a forklift accident at the Belridge oil field in western Kern County resulted in the death of a drilling worker.

Twenty-year-old Chris Watford, who worked for Golden State Drilling Co., died at the scene. He was apparently run over by a forklift.

"Those are the kind of things we fret about," said Kirk Zwicky, a safety team leader at ChevronTexaco's San Joaquin Business Unit, which was not involved in the incident.

Out of 82 accident investigations Cal-OSHA conducted from 1991 to 2002 in the state's oil and gas industry, including refining and extraction, 97 personnel were hospitalized, according to the agency.

Cal-OSHA has 17 industry fatalities on record for the same time period.

Oil-field services is a dangerous industry, said Dennis Douglas, district manager for Key Energy Services, which provides such services as drilling, construction, pressure pumping and trucking.

"We work around a lot of moving equipment," Douglas said. "It's all heavy. It's all iron."

John Allen, president and general manager of Occidental of Elk Hills in western Kern County, said that when he entered the oil business 30 years ago, it was expected that if you went to work on an oil rig, you were going to get hurt.

"Now, that's considered unacceptable," Allen said.

Zwicky said ChevronTexaco's belief that incident-free operations are attainable reflects a cultural mind shift in the industry.

Modern oil companies can't afford to behave irresponsibly, said Joe Bariffi, lead health and safety adviser at Aera Energy LLC in Bakersfield.

"We couldn't operate that way," Bariffi said. "Society wouldn't accept it."

From a business standpoint, companies have learned that when good safety practices are in place, productivity goes up, Zwicky said.

An oil company that wants to expand could find itself under government scrutiny if it has a poor safety record, Bariffi said.

Business aside, "No one wants to hurt anyone," said Bariffi, echoing executives at other oil companies.

Ensuring safety

Oil companies have taken steps over the years to ensure employee safety.

"Safety is an integral part of our business," said Aera spokeswoman Susan Hersberger.

Executives at several local oil companies said they strive for incident-free operations. They say while they're not there yet, they're getting closer.

Midland, Texas-based Key Energy Services, the world's largest provider of onshore oil services, has reduced occupational accidents by 35 percent over the past two years, according to the company. Key has around 575 employees in California, most of them in Kern County.

Many oil companies rely on behavior-based safety programs.

"Ninety-seven percent of accidents are caused by behavior," Douglas said.

An example of safe behavior in the oil field is stepping to the side when opening a pipeline, instead of standing in front of it, which would put the worker in the line of danger.

Douglas said he wants his personnel to stop and think before they undertake a job. He wants them to consider potential hazards and how they can be avoided.

At Aera, personnel are required to complete a job safety analysis form before every job, Bariffi said. They have to note potential accidents or hazards they might encounter and make recommendations to eliminate or reduce those hazards.

At ChevronTexaco, employees are also encouraged to always take the time to do a job safely, Zwicky said. He said most of the business unit's accidents this year are repetitive work injuries in the office, not incidents in the field.

"The reason why is behaviors," he said.

Oil companies appear to go to great lengths to establish safe oil fields.

Key has established a Corporate Safety Committee that's charged with auditing on-site safety procedures.

Armed with a safety checklist, the committee, composed of top company executives, visits Key yards and job sites around the country for two days every month. Any changes that need to be made are monitored by the committee.

"It sets a tone throughout the company that there is a culture of safety that must be adhered to at all costs," said Ken Houston, vice president of safety at Key.

Committee members visited Key's California division once last year and once this year. Douglas said they inspected local work sites and met with employees.

As is standard, the company has sent a third-party consultant to check on safety in the division, Douglas said.

Oxy and Aera also perform in-house audits.

Allen said personnel from Occidental Petroleum's other divisions have inspected Elk Hills, and personnel from Elk Hills have checked on other sites.

He said Oxy has, on occasion, brought in outside experts to examine safety at Elk Hills.

At Aera, peer-based safety observations are done in the field. Bariffi said the company usually does not bring in outside consultants. He said Aera has 17 safety professionals on staff.

Bariffi said specific safety rules govern every job, which are subject to inspections, and the company uses data analysis to detect any safety weaknesses in the company.

He said Aera, an operator in the Belridge oil field, conducted an investigation into the recent death of Watford. Bariffi said he could not provide any details.

Golden State is also investigating the accident, Bariffi said. A representative of Golden State said the company would not comment on the matter.

Cal-OSHA spokesman Dean Fryer said Wednesday there is an open investigation into the accident. Golden State could be fined if the agency finds the company in violation of state regulations, Fryer said. Cal-OSHA fines range from a few hundred dollars to upwards of $70,000.

Looking for trends

At Oxy, personnel follow up on reports made to Cal-OSHA, Allen said. Important safety topics, such as defensive driving and fire safety, and recent incidences and near-misses in the field are reviewed at regular safety meetings. Facilities in the field are inspected, Allen said

At ChevronTexaco's San Joaquin Business Unit, accident trends and actual incidents are also analyzed, Zwicky said. The company's safety training is then tailored accordingly.

In the oil industry, where several companies can work on one oil lease, safety is seen as a collaborative effort.

"We audit all our business partners," said Zwicky, referring to ChevronTexaco's contractors. "We ask them, what (safety) orientation are you doing?"

Aera, which has specific safety standards, requires contractors to complete a safety questionnaire before a work contract is signed, Bariffi said.

Three years ago, several companies in the local oil industry launched a petroleum safety class called Passport. Oil-field workers are asked to take the program, at the end of which they receive a "passport" that's good at any of the companies. The passport certifies they have taken the safety program.

Passport has helped improve safety in the oil business, Zwicky said.