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c.2013 Houston Chronicle

WASHINGTON - The death of a welder who fell from an offshore platform on last week highlights the dangers facing the large immigrant and contractor workforce employed to maintain and decommission decades-old oil and gas facilities in the Gulf of Mexico.

Four Filipino workers have died in the past year during welding and other physical work on shallow Gulf facilities, prompting concern from Manila to Washington, D.C.

''In light of these events, the Philippine Embassy would like to express its deep concern over the safety of Filipinos working in offshore facilities in the United States," Ambassador Jose Cusia Jr. said in a statement.

Hundreds of workers from the island nation toil in U.S. waters as welders, fabricators and riggers, mostly for contractors such as Galliano, La.-based Grand Isle Shipyard and Houma, La.-based Offshore Specialty Fabricators, the firm involved in the most recent incident.

Federal investigators are looking into what caused 38-year-old Peter Jorge E. Voces to plunge to his death from an Energy Resource Technology oil and gas platform about 75 miles southeast of Lake Charles.

A 76-member derrick barge crew from Offshore Specialty Fabricators was dismantling the inactive structure at the time of the accident, around 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 28, said David Blackmon, an Energy Resource Technology spokesman.

Voces was believed to be working on an 80-foot-by-16-foot 300-barrel tank when it fell off the platform, carrying the welder with it. His body was recovered two days later.

Officials with Offshore Specialty Fabricators did not return a request for comment but a statement on its website said the firm was deeply saddened by Voces' death and would cooperate with U.S. and Philippine officials in any investigations.

Energy Resource Technology, which is a subsidiary of Houston-based oil and gas firm Talos Energy, also pledged cooperation. "The safety of people is always our highest priority, and we will be focused on the safety of our employees and our contractors throughout the investigation," the company said in a statement.

Three other Filipino workers died roughly a year ago during maintenance work on another Gulf platform, this one about 18 miles off the Louisiana coast. Federal investigators are set to release a report soon on what caused an explosion on that facility owned by Houston-based Black Elk Energy. A report commissioned by the firm pinned blame on workers for Grand Isle Shipyard who were cutting through a pipe that had not been fully isolated and cleared of flammable vapors.

A 2011 lawsuit against Grand Isle and recruiting companies alleges that they lured foreign workers with promises of $16.26 in hourly wages and a shot at permanent U.S. visas but then forced the Filipinos to pay for housing in alleged slave-like conditions, relinquish their bunks to American workers and accept as little as $5.50 per hour. Grand Isle has rejected the claims.

Other lawsuits have been brought against Black Elk Energy and Grand Isle Shipyard by victims of the November 2012 blast, the most recent filed against Black Elk by a burned Filipino pipe fitter who says workers were inadequately supervised and not outfitted with adequate safety gear.

The Filipino workers have come to the Gulf under a variety of non-immigrant visas. In Grand Isle's case, workers say in court documents they were in the United States on a specialized E-2 or "treaty investor" visa, limited to employees of people in trade partner nations who are investing substantial money in U.S. businesses.

Terry Valen, the San Francisco-based president of the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns, said the offshore deaths shed light on shady employment practices and deplorable conditions.

''To hear of another death -- a worker falling off a platform -- we see the protections are not there," he said. "It's not being ensured by the Philippine government for its citizens and the U.S. government in how its regulating. It's an outrage for the Filipino community."

Roughly one in 10 Filipinos works abroad, in nations ringing the globe, but Valen notes that the accidents in the Gulf are not what you'd expect from "the United States, the most advanced country."

The recent deaths also are drawing fresh scrutiny to the web of contractors that work for energy companies in the Gulf.

Traditionally, federal drilling regulators focused solely on companies holding offshore oil and gas leases, putting the onus on them to make sure contractors follow regulations. But under a change in 2011, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement began policing contractors too, occasionally penalizing them as well as operators for running afoul of requirements.

Bureau director Brian Salerno said that a greater focus on contractors may be needed.

''The connections between operators and contractors can probably be tightened up from a safety perspective," he said, during one of his first interviews since taking over the agency two months ago. "I think the relationships are kind of loose, and I think that represents a safety vulnerability."

Salerno noted that contractor activity was a thread that appeared to run through recent accidents in the Gulf -- both the two fatal incidents and others involving offshore wells.

''In some of the instances we've seen offshore, that appears to be a factor," Salerno said. XXX - End of Story