Drugs, Oil, And The Great Crew Change

Roughly half the workforce in the oil and gas industry is expected to retire within the next ten years. As many companies approach what’s being called "the Great Crew Change," one of the biggest challenges is finding workers who are drug-free.


The oil and gas industry is one of the few in the U.S. experiencing a labor crunch. Newly minted high school graduates with no job experience can command starting salaries of $50,000, with the prospect of earning six figures in just a few years. All they need is a willingness to work hard and stay clean. And therein lies the problem.

Jim Noe is senior vice president and general counsel of Houston-based drilling firm Hercules Offshore.

“When we started hiring aggressively, about a year and a half ago, we were seeing about a quarter of all of the applicants fail the drug test. And then on top of that, you add another 4% to 5% of the workforce that fails drug tests once they’re hired. So it’s a big problem.”

Applicants are testing positive for drugs ranging from marijuana to methamphetamines to bath salts.

Terry Frakes is a senior vice president with Texas Mutual Insurance. The Austin-based company underwrites workers’ compensation policies for much of the state’s oil and gas industry. Frakes says the majors do a fairly good job of catching drug-users before they’re hired.

“However, on the other hand, we are seeing among smaller oil and gas businesses — independents, so to speak — an increase in the number of injuries involving intoxicants in the workplace. And not only independents, but also those businesses that serve the oil and gas industry.”

Frakes says the pressure to find enough bodies to fill job openings is leading many such firms to skimp on drug testing.

Kevin Glasheen is a personal injury lawyer based in Lubbock who regularly deals with the consequences.

“A man was killed on a drilling rig, and the whole crew had been smoking methamphetamine all night.”

Glasheen says one of the workers most responsible for the accident had three meth-related convictions before he was hired.

“And when we asked the vice president of the oil company, ‘Why do you hire a guy that obviously has a meth problem?’ And the answer was, ‘This is the oil field, and if we didn’t hire guys that had drug histories, we wouldn’t be able to staff our crews.’”

To improve their chances of keeping users off the payroll, some companies are switching to hair follicle tests. Human hair retains evidence of drug use far longer than urine, long the standard means of testing. But with tens of thousands of jobs to fill in the Great Crew Change, drugs are likely to be a serious problem for the industry for years to come.


Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media’s coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas delegations in the U.S. House and Senate, as well as the Texas governorship, the state legislature, and county and city governments. Before taking up his current post, Andrew...

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