Grand River adapts to growing gas industry
RIFLE – Increases in natural gas drilling in western Garfield County have translated into dramatic increases in “business” for the Grand River Medical Center.Every part of the hospital’s operations is expanding to accommodate not only a growing community, but also a growing industry. From the emergency room to the laboratory, volumes are up. Emergency room visits increased by 13 percent between 2004 and 2005, said John Gardner, Grand River’s chief financial officer. The emergency room, which has 14 beds, saw about 6,400 patients in 2004 and about 7,200 in 2005.Gardner compared those numbers with a hospital he worked at in Nebraska, which had 200 beds that saw about 10,000 emergency room visits a year.”Sure, a lot of that can be attributed to the growth in the community,” Gardner said. “More people means more incidents. But a lot of that can be attributed to the gas industry.”Cleo Castle, the emergency room manager at Grand River, said there has been a 10 percent increase specifically in gas and oil-related accidents. She said she keeps track by documenting the payer source.Almost all of the gas industry cases are ultimately paid by workers’ compensation, Castle said.Colorado Workers Compensation only has records of two gas and oil industry accidents in Garfield County in 2002 and three in 2003, the most recent years for which there is data. Employers are only required to report lost-time claims, in which an employee misses three or more shifts because of injury.The national Occupational Safety and Health Administration has targeted the oil and gas industry as one of seven it will focus on, said Herb Gibson, the northern Colorado OSHA area director.”It’s a dangerous occupation,” Gibson said. “And it’s our goal to reduce injury through safety education and training.”Gibson said OSHA will partner with Colorado Mountain College and already offers a number of safety training seminars for people who work in the industry.
Few serious injuriesAccording to Castle, the most common gas industry-related injuries in the ER are lacerations, broken bones and other minor injuries.Jared Corne, the safety and environmental coordinator for Nabors Drilling, one of the largest contractors in western Garfield County, said he takes his employees to the emergency room no matter how seemingly small an incident might be. “Most of the time they’re released right away,” Corne said. “That’s what we like to see.”Castle said it’s rare that a worker has to come to the hospital in an ambulance. She estimates that more than 90 percent of the ER visits from gas workers are outpatient cases.Very serious injuries are sent by air to St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction. Only a few gas industry injuries were severe enough to require a Flight for Life ride.More people, more ER visitors”There are definitely more workers in 2005 than there were in 2004,” said Kathy Hall, the Western Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association representative. “Whether there’s twice as many, I don’t know. There could be. That would certainly explain why there’s been a jump in calls to the ER.”Corne suggests there are more inexperienced workers entering the oil and gas field because the industry is growing so quickly in this area. That could explain increases in accidents.Since May, Nabors’ incident rate has been decreasing, Corne said, because of increased training efforts.”Prevention is training-based,” Corne said.The emergency room staff at Grand River hopes to become better equipped to handle gas industry cases. Most of them will take tours of EnCana’s rigs this spring.
“We’re going to familiarize ourselves with the equipment so when people come in, we know more about the mechanism of their injury,” Castle said. Drug screens are big businessAfter any kind of accident, Audie Williams, who runs Dalbo Inc. A-1 Tank Rental, said he drug-tests everyone involved. That’s a common practice among natural gas industry companies.Dalbo is in the business of moving water to and from drill rigs, which means most employees drive heavy water trucks.”We always do a test after an accident,” Williams said. “It’s just to see if the driver is impaired. It makes a lot of difference. If there’s drugs or alcohol in the driver’s system, workers’ comp can deny part of the claim.”Williams said they usually have drug testing following accidents done at Grand River Medical Center. For pre-employment tests and random drug screens, the company uses a private firm.But Grand River stays plenty busy without Dalbo’s regular business. Cindy Baxter, the lab manager at Grand River, said the volume of drug screens she’s processed has easily doubled in the last year.”This has just exploded,” Baxter said. “We might take 100-200 drug screens per month.”Both EnCana Oil & Gas and Williams Production require anyone who works on their sites or with their equipment, whether they’re a contractor or directly employed by the companies, to have a pre-employment drug test. They also randomly drug screen employees and contractors, though many contractors conduct their own random tests as well.EnCana keeps a list of employees who fail drug tests, and they are banned from drilling sites for life, said EnCana spokesman Doug Hock.”Sometimes a person might test positive, get fired and then go down the road to work for someone else,” Hock said. “Keeping a list, we try to prevent that.”Grand River does most of its drug testing on site and can have immediate results. Baxter sends tests that are positive or irregular to an off-site lab that can run more specific tests in order to avoid false positives. She said most of the new hires she tests are cleared.
“But people are sneaky,” Baxter said. “All you have to do is go on the Internet and you’ll see a hundred ways to beat it.”More testsDrugs aren’t the only thing employers are testing potential employees for. Grand River recently sent Maggie Muchmore, an occupational therapist, to a special training for WorkSTEPS testing.”It’s a job-specific testing,” Muchmore explained. “It’s going out to a site and identifying the most difficult, demanding things an employee will have to do. You test them on that because if they can do that, they can do the rest.”Muchmore tests potential employees’ abilities to do the work they’re being hired to do.Kris Daler, Grand River public relations director, said she’s had several conversations with gas industry employers who wanted a program like this locally. WorkSTEPS is a standardized testing program that addresses the standards of the oil and gas industry.Muchmore will use work-place simulations to test musculoskeletal systems, flexibility, joint integrity and strength.”It does help employers weed out those people they think will be able to do the work who can’t,” Muchmore said.Corne tests all of his employees with WorkSTEPS. There are some vendors who use the program in Grand Junction. But when they are booked, Corne has had to send people as far away as Rock Springs, Wyo. Pinnacol Assurance, Colorado’s largest workers’ compensation insurance provider, considers deep discounts for employers that consistently pre-test employees, said spokeswoman Margie McCarthy.”This is really considered the wave of the future,” McCarthy said of pre-employment fitness testing.Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs has a similar program, called Fit To Work. But the occupational therapists there have not done much testing for the gas industry, said Ross Peterson, the director of rehabilitation services.
Daler said the growth has Grand River hospital administration looking for a new space where it can expand to provide pre-employment services like WorkSTEPS.More work, more moneyGrand River Medical Center’s growth has been good for its financial health.”There’s no question that the hospital has seen growth in tax revenues,” Gardner said.In fact, The Grand River Hospital District owes a tremendous amount of its financial growth to the gas industry. It’s a public hospital district, supported by taxpayers in the same way a school district is. Eighty percent of that tax revenue comes from the gas industry, said Garfield County assessor Shannon Hurst.The average residential homeowner is taxed 7.96 percent of the assessed valuation of their property times any mill levy. Natural gas companies are taxed 87.5 percent on the assessed valuation of their production minus any applicable expenses times the mill levy.Natural gas production contributed significantly more in 2005 than it did in 2004, Hurst said. Garfield County as a whole received 45 percent of its revenue from oil and gas development in 2004 and 55 percent in 2005.”That percentage, though, is concentrated in a small area – New Castle and west,” Hurst said.Gardner said tax revenue isn’t the only way the industry has contributed to the hospital. Energy Impact grants from the Department of Local Affairs helped to pay for new technology, including a new 32-slice computed tomography (CT) scanner.”A concern is – what if the gas boom ends?” Gardner said. “We’re trying to flex in sensible ways in order to meet the demands of this growth. But we’re also not shooting from the hip.”For now, the gas industry is booming, and Grand River is working to keep up.
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