ANCHORAGE - Long hours are the norm at the Prudhoe Bay oil field, but veteran workers for field management company BP are exhausted from too much overtime and are concerned about the potential for fatigue-related accidents, a union leader said Tuesday.
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The company has failed to fill about a dozen empty positions for highly skilled technicians, despite repeated requests from the union since September, said Kris Dye, president of United Steelworkers 4959.
"We need people with 10-year plus experience who we can bring up to speed pretty quickly and take care of these people who are walking around with a glazed look in their eyes," Dye said.
BP officials said at least nine new technicians, each with more than 10 years of experience, will be starting work by April 10, along with about two dozen other workers.
"The process has taken longer than we would have expected or would have liked," said BP spokesman Daren Beaudo. "But we believe we've found a solution to bridge the gap."
No accidents have been linked to the worker shortage. However, exhaustion is a major concern among the technicians, who run facilities that process a billion cubic feet of natural gas and 50,000 to 100,000 barrels of crude oil a day.
"We're dealing with very explosive and dangerous processes and you wouldn't have to do too much to have something really bad happen," said Dye, who has worked for BP at Prudhoe Bay for 21 years.
The union, which represents 230 workers, had been concerned about the labor shortage for about a year before an oil spill in August prompted BP to temporarily halve production at the nation's largest oil field.
An earlier spill of up to 267,000 gallons in March was the North Slope's largest. Both were traced to corrosion in pipelines that had been poorly maintained for years.
Dye said he doesn't think the worker shortage had anything to do with the spills, but now there are not enough workers to accommodate the recent increase in corrosion monitoring at Prudhoe.
The X-ray units used by corrosion detection crews trigger fire alarms inside Prudhoe's massive oil collection centers, so the alarms and sprinkler system must be turned off for hours while the pipes are being examined.
But there are barely enough workers to patrol the networks of indoor pipes while the fire safeguards are down, said Dye, the chief operator at one of the collection centers.
"If we don't have enough operational folks there, we'd put ourselves at risk," Dye said.
Two inspectors from the state Division of Oil and Gas visited Prudhoe Bay last weekend, partially in response to information from industry watchdog Chuck Hamel detailing the safety concerns on the union's behalf, said Joe Balash, special assistant to the governor.
About 120 technicians at oil collection centers and well pads are working back-to-back 18-hour days, with 12 hours off between sets. Normally, they work 12-hour shifts for two weeks straight and then get two weeks off.
Hiring was slowed by fallout from the shutdown as well as the holiday season, according to an internal memo sent to workers.