By Anya Litvak
At 25, Samantha Larrick says her co-workers make her feel “like an old woman.”
The safety supervisor was hired by Consol Energy Inc., an energy company based outside Pittsburgh, in March and since then, her department has added three other safety specialists, all women, all younger than Larrick.
Maybe it’s not just the numbers that make her feel older than her years. She’s been married for almost three years. She and her husband have built a house. And this early in her career, Larrick is already a supervisor.
She is confident and self-aware, which is useful since part of her job is to walk along pipelines and compressor stations, looking for anything that doesn’t fit within Consol’s safety protocol and could pose a safety hazard. She might remind workers to tuck in their shirts or fence off a ditch. She might spot a leak or a tripping hazard.
When she does, the message has to be delivered with finesse. Most of the time, the person she’s correcting has more experience in the field and is likely older, although the age gap has narrowed significantly in recent years.
While oil and gas aren’t new to Pennsylvania, large-scale shale development has only been around for the past six or seven years. The industry is so ravenous for workers that “a two-year guy is as valuable as a 10-year guy,” said Greg Haney, 27, a facilities operations supervisor with Consol.
The trend holds for all disciplines across shale gas, but is especially true for safety.
“There’s a lot more regulation now, so people like me are more (in) demand,” Larrick said.
Consol’s safety department has grown considerably during the past few years, according to Pat Carfagna, director of safety in gas operations and Larrick’s boss. At 51, Carfagna said he’s the second-oldest person in the corporate safety group.
The pace of growth gives entree to recent college graduates and, when more experienced professionals move up the corporate ladder, young professionals advance at a faster pace than they would have otherwise.
That’s how Larrick ended up being promoted to a supervisory position just three months after joining the company as a safety specialist.
Carfagna said she and the other young safety specialists hired this year are tasked with a challenging mission: telling people what they’re doing might be wrong.
“That’s a tough task for anybody, let alone somebody that is younger,” he said.
But the generational divide here is an advantageous one, Carfagna said.
“The thing that I personally see is the skill sets that the younger professionals have are probably much better than where I was at that age category,” he said. “The interpersonal skills and communication skills, they’re ahead of where I was at that age.”
The average age across all of Consol’s oil and gas operations is 38.
Larrick was born in a small northern West Virginia town.
Her father worked in a number of industrial jobs, some of which involved safety oversight. For a 13-year stretch of Larrick’s childhood, he was an environmental health and safety supervisor at a coil coating facility in West Virginia.
“I heard the middle-of-the-night phone calls,” she said. “I just always knew that not everybody’s dad was going to come home and I was not OK with that.”
From a young age, Larrick knew she wanted to work in safety. She studied industrial engineering at West Virginia University and, while there, got an internship at BP. When she graduated, BP offered her a full-time position at its Toledo refinery in Ohio.
“I was the baby at the refinery,” she said. “I was the youngest one in the group, and everyone was more than happy to remind me of it.”
There, she had to contend with safety habits, good and bad, that had been built up since the refinery opened in 1919. That attitude of “this is how we’ve always done it” can be a hindrance for a safety professional.
In shale gas, with a much younger workforce and a still nascent exploration program, Consol only became a serious Marcellus Shale operator in 2009, “a lot of times people don’t know what things were like for a number of years.” And that’s often a good thing.
“Sometimes you need that fresh set of eyes,” she said.
“This industry is young, but whenever I was at BP, there were people old enough to be my dad and my dad’s dad,” she said. “I would start talking to them and they were like,” what do you know about it?
In shale gas, “You get the occasional one that’s really cocky.” But for the most part, people are receptive, she said.
It helps that Larrick isn’t shy.
“It’s purely personality,” she said. “I’ve never been bashful about anything, and a lot of my guy friends and a lot of my family have conditioned me not to be afraid to ask questions.”