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Apr 08, 2019

OSHA in the Oilpatch

By: Allison Mann

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was created in 1970 with the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Congress passed this act to assure safe and healthful working conditions for workers by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance.

In 2017, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released its findings on workplace fatalities for various states. In 2016, the total work-related fatalities in North Dakota were 28, a decrease from 47 in the previous year. The occupations with the three highest work-related fatalities were transportation and material moving occupations, management occupations (agriculture/ranching), and extracting (oil & gas), accounting for 10, 9, and 5 fatalities respectively.

These statistics raise the question, how can these occupations be made safer? One way to help is continued vigilance in adhering to OSHA safety regulations and workplace safety guidelines.

OSHA Fatal Fact Sheets

As part of its Safety and Health Topics publications, OSHA provides an industry by industry listing of relevant regulations and fact sheets. In OSHA Fatal Facts, Oil Patch No. 5-2012, the agency issued a hazard accident prevention. In this case, two employees were working in a trench, repairing a leaking crude oil flow line connecting a producing well to its tank battery. Two employees attempted to cut on the flow line with a manual pipe threading machine but noticed that the dies on the threader were dull. When the new dies arrived, instead of using the manual pipe threader, the two workers installed the dies on an electric pipe threading machine and proceeded to thread the exposed pipe. Flammable vapors in the air were ignited by the electric pipe threader, resulting in a flash fire. A third employee discharged two fire extinguishers and put out the fire. Unfortunately, the first two employees were hospitalized with second and third degree burns to their arms neck and faces. One employee died in hospital from his injuries. The second employee was later released.

In this case, the employer complied with some OSHA regulations. In providing the employee with fire extinguishers, the employer complied with 29 C.F.R. § 1910.157(c), which requires employers to distribute portable fire extinguishers for use by employees on Class B fires. The employer also provided the right type of fire extinguisher, as a Class B fire is one involving flammable or combustible liquids and flammable gases. However, OSHA pointed out that employers must also provide and require the use of flame-resistant clothing for workers who are exposed to flash-fire hazards. It also recommended that employees should perform job hazard analyses, prior to beginning work, to determine potential hazards such as leaking flammable vapors from equipment that had previously contained hydrocarbons.

Other OSHA standards relevant to the oil patch include those for fall protection. OSHA Fatal Facts, Oil Patch No.4-2012 publication highlights 29 C.F.R § 1910 Subpart D. In this regulation, an employer must make sure that if an employee is walking on an elevated surface that has an unprotected side or edge that is four feet or higher above a lower level, that employer must ensure that the employee is protected from falling by one or more of the following: guardrail systems, safety net systems, or personal fall protection systems, such as personal fall arrest, travel restraint, or positioning systems.

In one such fatal accident, an employee working on a derrick platform climbed back up to the derrick board but did not attach his personal fall arrest system (PFAS) after unhooking from the climb assist. When the worker lost his balance, he fell 90 feet to the rig floor, where he was fatally injured. In its accident prevention publication, OSHA listed four main points to prevent falls in the future: (1) employers should make sure that workers at elevations above the ground or adjacent surfaces such as a rig floor, are protected at all times from falling by guardrail systems, safety net systems, or personal fall arrest systems; (2) employers should evaluate the worksite to identify jobs and locations where workers might be exposed to fall hazards; (3) instruct all workers in the hazards of working at elevations and how to properly use personal fall arrest systems; and (4) implement work rules which instruct workers that they must use fall protection equipment when working at elevations, and inspect all fall-related equipment (guardrails, ladders, and PFAS) to make sure that they are not damaged or deteriorated.

The Takeaway:

As an employer, ensuring that your company adheres to OSHA standards by educating employees on how to properly conduct job hazard assessments, providing proper equipment such as, fire resistant clothing and fire extinguishers, as well as providing appropriate instruction on fall protection equipment, will help reduce work-related injuries and fatalities. Adhering to OSHA standards can also help protect your company from potential liability from such accidents.

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Reprinted with permission from an article submitted for publication in the April, 2019 Southwest Area Human Resource Association newsletter.