Drug Use in the Permian: Substance Abuse Advocates Look to Help Oil Workers
[Editor's Note: This is the third installment in a three-part series exploring the working and living conditions for employees in the Permian.]
Employment opportunities in West Texas’ oilfields are plentiful, but aside from six-figure salaries lies a more sobering reality.
Christopher Pierce, director of marketing for The Springboard Center, an alcohol and drug treatment facility in Midland, has held his position for four months, but worked at Springboard for three years.
“We get a lot of clients who work in the oilfield because of where we’re located,” Pierce said during an interview with Rigzone at Springboard’s housing facility.
Pierce, 35, can relate to many of the people who walk through the doors of Springboard because he also worked in the oilfield … and he’s a former client.
In the video below, he recounts his struggle with addiction.
Drug and alcohol abuse has become part of an often known, but rarely openly discussed subculture in the oilfield where workers are using substances to help them get through grueling working conditions.
Kayla Fishbeck, regional evaluator for Prevention Resource Center Region 9, a data repository for 30 counties in West Texas and a part of the Permian Basin Regional Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, prefers to acquire qualitative data through interviews because numbers can often be underestimated or not completely telling of the full story.
“Regarding the oilfield and drug testing centers, the consistent story is that contractors and those who have to work long shifts, overnight or going for 24 hours will use ‘uppers’ to keep them awake – such as cocaine and methamphetamines – and then end their shift with a ‘downer’ such as alcohol or prescription medications,” Fishbeck told Rigzone. “In Region 9, the most screened drug last year was amphetamines and that was largely in the oilfield.”
Other substance issues in the oilfield include opioid abuse and marijuana and alcohol use, she said.
“Midland and Odessa are the top two cities in Texas for drunken driving fatalities,” said Fishbeck. “We hear stories of guys getting off their shift, getting a six-pack or 12-pack on their way home and start drinking in their truck.”
Tough jobs in the oilfield are also the cause of some aches and pains among workers, and the chance of them getting hooked on prescription pain relievers and highly addictive opioids is common.
“We have two methadone clinics between Midland and Odessa and they have 241 beds,” said Fishbeck. “They tell me they get calls every day for people seeking treatment and have to put people on a waitlist. So between the two cities, they are taking care of about 250 people daily.”
Fishbeck said when asked if most of them were oilfield workers, she was told that many of them are, but also family members of those whom work in the oilfield, like wives.
In February, Fishbeck interviewed the CEO of an Odessa drug screening facility primarily for oilfield companies, and he said that marijuana and cocaine are the most commonly seen drugs, followed by methamphetamines. Most of the workers coming in are in their early 20s.
The Permian, partly because of its close proximity to major highways I-20 and I-10 and Mexico, has long been considered a “drug hub.” Locals know this and don’t expect it to change anytime soon.
How Employers Can Help
As part of its outreach efforts, Fishbeck said Prevention Resource Center Region 9 has visited oilfield companies who want to learn more about substance abuse in the workplace and how to recognize signs.
“We can either bring training to them or we can train them ourselves,” she said.
Something she noticed as they visited one company’s training for substance abuse in the workplace was the message that was sent – essentially if one noticed an employee whom they suspected might be abusing drugs or alcohol, send them to a screening and if they fail, fire them.
“I know it can be easy to just fire people for not following regulations, but my presentation was about taking advantage of employee assistance programs … send someone to treatment so they can fix these issues instead of firing them and they run the risk of getting into harder drugs,” she said.
While employee assistance programs can vary by company, essentially an employee is sent to treatment, given a certain amount of time and then retested to make sure they’re staying clean. But Fishbeck admitted she doesn’t know of one company who actually utilizes them.
“You can’t watch someone 24 hours a day. It’s just not possible,” said Pierce, who adds he has nothing negative to say about the oil and gas industry and that it’s the backbone of the economy in the Permian.
He does believes companies need to invest in their employees.
“If a person at work can say, ‘I’ve been drinking too much or I’ve been using drugs and I need help’ … a lot of people don’t want to speak up for fear of getting fired,” he said. “Drug addiction and alcohol abuse is a disease … there needs to be a more open dialogue for communication.”
The costs of replacing an employee means the company would lose money they invested, Pierce said.
“I don’t know how I flew under the radar like I did. The funny thing was that they kept promoting me. Once I started moving up, I never got drug tested,” he said. “At the height of my career I was making a ton of money and I’d sit back and say to myself, ‘I have no idea how I got to this point.’ The lights are on, I’m walking around, but I’m dead inside.”
Pierce’s drug of choice was heroin and alcohol.
“I needed [heroin] to walk, talk, eat, sleep, do anything,” he said. “It got up to a very high amount that I was using there at the end. I wasn’t doing 100 percent good work – I couldn’t have been.”
After nine years working in the oilfield, Pierce left in 2012.
He continued to use after leaving the oilfield, but eventually found his way to The Springboard Center.
“The first day I was out of detox I got appendicitis … imagine how that went over – a heroin addict’s first day out of detox and my first day off detox meds and I’m in a treatment center complaining that I’m in pain,” said Pierce. “They got me to the hospital, I had surgery and was in the hospital for two days. When I was discharged from the hospital, I came back to Springboard.”
It was that night that Pierce said he had his a-ha moment.
“I had a good talk with God and I was done. I was willing to become teachable and open my eyes and mind,” he said. “Things didn’t change overnight, but the harder I worked on myself the better things became. It was the best decision of my life.”
Today, Pierce speaks of other success stories from oilfield workers who enter The Springboard Center.
“Guys that own companies, water haulers, frac hands, roughnecks … I’ve seen success in all those areas, we’ve also seen company executives come through these doors,” he said. “People with inflated egos and a title think it’s going to save you. But everything can crumble – your marriage, your job, your house, your Porsche – I’ve told this to men and women.”
Pierce is currently working on a project with Springboard that he holds close to his heart – one he hopes will help others who have been where he’s been.
“We are in the works of building a sober living man camp for oilfield workers where you don’t have to necessarily go to treatment, but if you want to put yourself in a safe place where there’s no drugs or alcohol and there’s accountability – you’re not even going to get through the gate without blowing into a breathalyzer,” he said. “If you have a problem and your company knows about us, we’ll bring treatment to you.”
Pierce’s vision for the sober living man camp includes a gated community with on-site counselors and 24-hour security.
“We’ve been playing with the idea for a couple of months, so we decided to pull the trigger on it,” he said. “We want to get into the idea of companies investing in their employees. We want to be an advocate for all walks of life – oilfield, rich, poor, whoever.”
And as for Pierce, he doesn’t live with regrets.
“I wouldn’t change anything about my life because it got me to where I am today, and I am a grateful recovering alcoholic drug addict.”
(Video Editing by Saaniya Bangee)
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