University Study Examines Permian Workforce Health

The study dove into the quality of life experienced by oil and gas workers in the New Mexico's Permian Basin—the majority of whom are Hispanic New Mexicans. This incorporated the past and present conditions and how the influence of clean energy could shift their career plans moving forward.

oil field, the oil workers are working
Source: zhengzaishuru/Getty Images

A new research project from the University of New Mexico (UNM) examined the conditions of the workforce in New Mexico’s Permian Basin. Gabriel Sanchez, director of the school’s Center for Social Policy, and Shannon Sanchez-Youngman, director of the school’s Center for Participatory Research headed the Southeastern New Mexico Oil and Gas Workforce Study.

“Our study had two main goals, to identify paths to improve the working conditions of oil and gas workers and to help inform areas in workforce training that should be addressed as the state transitions to clean energy production,” Sanchez said.

The study, commissioned by the nonprofit Somos Un Pueblo Unido, dove into the quality of life experienced by oil and gas workers in the state’s Permian Basin—the majority of whom are Hispanic New Mexicans. This incorporated the past and present conditions and how the influence of clean energy could shift their career plans moving forward.

“Oil and gas production is the driving force for our state’s economy and, in the Permian Basin, where our study was conducted, the economic impact on the region is massive,” Sanchez said. “I have learned through the collaboration with Somos that the overall workforce that supports the oil and gas industry are heavily Hispanic New Mexicans. That population is my area of focus in my own academic research, so this made me much more interested in the project.”

Many factors must be accounted for when analyzing populations like this. Sanchez and Sanchez-Youngman conducted multiple waves of focus group studies, incorporating anonymity, rewards for participation, and diverse responses across the nearly 200 participants, which included oil and gas workers, members of their families, and service providers who provide workforce development training in the region.

“I study how sociostructural factors including policy, labor markets, citizenship status, racism, and working conditions contribute to inequities in health and wellbeing among marginalized populations,” Sanchez-Youngman said. “Conversely, I have a large body of work that seeks to develop community and policy level interventions that address these social determinants of health. This work is critical.”

Not only this, but many of the workers interviewed in the Permian Basin were migrants, or Spanish-speaking dominant. With the need to build that trust with surveyors, it was especially critical to work with Somos Un Pueblo Unido.

“Working with communities like Latino oil and gas workers is challenging, as many of whom are Spanish dominant and immigrants. We always partner with community organizations who have strong relationships with the communities they work with to help overcome these challenges,” Sanchez said. “Somos un Pueblo Unido is the ideal partner for this project given their built in trust and deep knowledge of the Southeast region of the state.”

This study operated under a bigger scope underway at UNM, part of the Grand Challenges program. As one of the few selected research areas of focus for the universitywide program, this group is focused on a just transition to clean energy. Still, Sanchez and Sanchez-Youngman knew that, despite intentions to move to a cleaner world, the oil and gas community would be affected and should have a say in the change.

“We have done a lot of work collecting the attitudes and experiences of New Mexicans since the policy discussions of the Energy Transition Act began a few years ago, but the gap in our work was speaking directly with oil and gas workers, the community most likely to be impacted by the movement to clean energy production,” Sanchez said. “It has taken us some time to gain the trust of this organization and their partners, but we are in a great place in the relationship, which leads to better research.”

So, from late 2023 to now, Sanchez and Sanchez-Youngman engaged in qualitative and quantitative surveys to learn more about the people behind the numbers.

“Through our Grand Challenge work, we have been able to weave together a truly cross-disciplinary approach to understanding and solving the complexities related to creating a just transition from oil and fossil fuels to clean energy,” Sanchez-Youngman said. “My expertise on the project is to collaborate closely with organizations and grassroots residents to understand what a just transition entails given the contextual needs of workers across the state.”

What Sanchez and Sanchez-Youngman found was startling. A massive economic output comes with a massive cost, beginning with internal struggles.

“Workers in this arena suffer from a number of health issues including high rates of injury and death, substance misuse, and mental health issues emanating from long term separation from families and the isolated nature of the work,” Sanchez-Youngman said.

Externally, the work that goes on in the Permian Basin is extremely dangerous—not just in terms of weather, materials, and hours but also in terms of risky equipment and duties.

“There is a high rate of accidents, many of them fatal. The workers we heard from believe that many of these accidents can be avoided with better safety protocols. One of the main factors that workers identified leading to accidents is the high number of work hours they put in each week. This is a great source of income for these workers, but it can lead to accidents,” Sanchez said.

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Find the study here.