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Not Digging a Deeper Hole: How to Handle an OSHA Investigation

Not Digging a Deeper Hole: How to Handle an OSHA Investigation Background Image

The Department of Justice announced criminal charges against an oilfield company, its vice president, and one of its contractors in connection with two deaths at a company facility in 2019. Additional charges were brought against the company and its vice president for conduct in the subsequent investigation.

The two deaths, a husband and wife, were caused by exposure to hydrogen sulfide gas (“H2S”) at a pumphouse operated by the company which handled produced water from oil and gas wells. According to the indictment, the husband-employee was responding to a service call to check on the pumphouse when he was overcome by the toxic gas. When he did not return home as expected, his wife drove to the facility to check on him and subsequently died from her own exposure.

According to the DOJ, the company knew that the produced water in its pumphouse had high levels of H2S and failed to protect against the hazard. DOJ alleges that, although the company had sensors and alarms on the pumphouse to alert if H2S was detected, none of the warning devices functioned on the night of the incident. The subsequent investigation led to additional allegations, including false statements previously made by the three defendants to conceal noncompliance with well-testing regulations.

In addition to seven other counts, the company and its vice president were also charged with two criminal counts of obstruction. The indictment states that the vice president made false statements about the maintenance and calibration of the H2S monitors at the pumphouse and also made false statements about the company’s personal protective equipment protocols.

The post-incident investigation is a pivotal process with serious consequences. When incidents occur, early engagement with counsel can protect you from the pitfalls of the process and help prevent procedural errors and missteps. Failing to appreciate the gravity of an investigation—whether conducted by regulators or internally—can have far reaching effects on a company and its management, including civil and criminal penalties. People should always think twice before talking to government investigators without a lawyer, which any viewer of “Law & Order” should know, and, if you do say something, don’t lie. It is much better to say nothing at all.

This information is provided by Vinson & Elkins LLP for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended, nor should it be construed, as legal advice.