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Reducing Fatalities in the Oil & Gas Industry through Targeted Hazard Elimination Strategies

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Spring 2017

By Greg Duncan

Despite notable progress in reducing non-fatal workplace injuries and illnesses over the past decade, oil and gas extraction remains, arguably, the deadliest industry in the United States. Between 2003 and 2013, the number of workers in the U.S. oil and gas extraction industry doubled in response to unprecedented growth in domestic production. In 2014, workers suffered 142 fatalities, the highest number since 2003. During the period between 2003 and 2013, the industry averaged 25.0 fatalities per 100,000 workers per year — a rate seven times the average for all U.S. workers.

Studies by BLS and NIOSH have identified five hazards that contributed to 98 percent of fatalities in the oil and gas extraction industry. They include transportation-related incidents, contact with objects and equipment, fires and explosions, exposure to hazardous chemicals, and falls.

Following we look at these top hazards in more detail along with targeted hazard elimination strategies that can help reduce worker risk.

Transportation Incidents

Forty-one percent of worker deaths occurred as a result of highway vehicle accidents, making it the single greatest cause of fatalities. Vehicle safety is a critical, yet often overlooked aspect of workplace safety in the oil and gas extraction industry. Although employers cannot control road and traffic conditions, they can promote safer driving behaviors and enforce stronger driver safety policies. Drivers must receive training that is specialized for the vehicles and equipment they operate, and includes instruction in defensive driving, recognizing and managing driver fatigue, and eliminating in-vehicle distractions such as cell phone use.

Employers should maintain records of workers’ driving performance, including any incidents or near misses they are involved in, and make that information both easily accessible and transparent throughout the organization. Analysis of this incident data can help employers develop targeted training in response to common hazards. In addition, employers should enforce driver safety policies including mandatory seat belt use, regular drug testing, and hours-of-service limits that are at least as stringent as FMCSA/DOT regulations.

Keep in mind that the driver is only part of the equation when it comes to vehicle safety. Regular preventative maintenance is an important factor in reducing the risk of mechanical failures that can lead to roadway incidents. Employers should consider implementing an electronic system that provides up-to-date tracking of vehicle inspections and maintenance across their entire fleet, and automatically notifies maintenance personnel when inspections must be performed.

Contact with Objects & Equipment

The second most common cause of fatalities is being struck by, struck against, or caught-between equipment and vehicles. While individual hazards are too numerous and diverse to address individually here, there are some general strategies that can help you better protect your workers.

Hazard awareness is the first line of defense in preventing these types of incidents. Employers are ultimately responsible for providing workers with the training necessary to identify, avoid and correct hazards. Training management software is available that can assign and track employee training requirements, participation and completion, while providing employers with access to training records so they can easily identify which employees require what training based the hazards encountered in their roles, and verify that they have completed the applicable training requirements. The best software will even send escalating alerts as training deadlines near or are missed.

Before hazard awareness training can be provided, however, employers must know which hazards will be encountered by which employees during the performance of their duties. Job safety analysis (JSA) is an ideal method for documenting these hazards, and also serves as an important training tool for employees to help them anticipate hazards on a step-by-step basis. Making JSAs available electronically ensures employees have access to them when and where they need them, and allows the JSA to be reviewed and updated whenever new hazards are identified, or when changes in process, equipment, materials or working conditions occur. Here too, software is transforming the ease with which JSAs are conducted and corrective actions are carried out.

Fires and Explosions

Flammable gasses and liquids can originate from multiple sources during drilling and extraction, often without any indication, so employees should always assume a high risk of fire or explosion. Consider a 2003 incident involving an explosion at an oilfield waste disposal facility in Rosharon, Texas. Two vacuum trucks were offloading ordinarily non-flammable basic sediment and water (BS&W) to an open storage pit. Unknown to the drivers or disposal facility personnel, a high concentration of flammable gasses became dissolved in the BS&W during the extraction process, which then evaporated and filled the area around the facility. Investigators concluded that gasses were drawn into the intake of one of the trucks causing the engine to race and backfire, igniting the vapors. Three workers were killed, both trucks were destroyed, and the facility was heavily damaged.

This is another unfortunate case where hazard awareness and training may have prevented the loss of life. Drilling contractors and well support service providers, in particular, are generally not exposed to these hazards as frequently or regularly as rig operators. Regardless, the risk remains equally high and all workers should be trained in recognizing potential sources of flammable gas and liquids, how to eliminate potential sources of ignition, and how to perform job functions in a way that reduces the risk for fire or explosion.

Exposure to Hazardous Materials

Nine percent of fatalities were the result of exposure to hazardous materials. One of the most common causes was exposure to H2S gas and volatile hydrocarbons. Many of these fatalities occurred when workers were accessing storage and transportation tanks to gauge tank levels or collect samples. Upon opening tanks, the workers were quickly overcome by acutely hazardous concentrations of these gasses.

Recommendations include use of remote gauging and sampling devices, blowdown valves and flaring systems, thief hatch pressure indicators, and storage tanks with bottom-mounted taps. However, engineering controls such as these may not be feasible. The only sufficient alternative is to provide workers with a supplied air respirator such as an SCBA to prevent exposure to hydrocarbon gasses and associated vapors.

Whether you use engineering controls, PPE, or a combination of both to protect your workers from exposure, ensure that they have been effectively trained in its maintenance and use. Providing training to workers who have demanding schedules and are spread out across multiple facilities can be a significant challenge, but training software that includes access to on-demand training content will allow you to create and deliver employee training regardless of workers’ schedules or location. In addition to training, it is important to arm employees with access to chemical safety data sheets (SDSs) so they can familiarize themselves with the nature of the hazards to which they are exposed. Today’s best EHS software can put SDS information in the pocket of every employee via a mobile app.

Falls

Though the use of fall protection is widespread in oil and gas operations, 8% of fatalities occurred as the result of falls. OSHA recently updated its Walking-Working Surfaces Standard, and introduced major changes to requirements surrounding fall protection systems. They include new training requirements for workers on fall hazards and use of fall protection systems, guidelines for acceptable fall protection devices, as well as requirements for employers to inspect walking-working surfaces regularly and correct, repair, or guard against hazards.

To protect workers and ensure compliance with new fall protection standards, employers should, again, consider implementing a training management software system to simplify the delivery and evaluation of employee training. Coupled with on-demand training content, a training management software system can form the foundation of a workplace safety training program that helps save workers’ lives.

The oil and gas industry faces a challenging business landscape thanks to increased energy demands, unstable oil prices and intense public scrutiny. In the wake of recent catastrophic events there is increased pressure around crew safety, risk management and environmental concerns. As a result, companies have to continue to enhance their EHS activities at the same that they prospect for new business and find ways to reduce costs. Through better understanding of the hazards oil and gas workers face, companies can better train workers on the dangers the face and give them the necessary tools to stay safe.

Greg Duncan, BS, MELP, is an EHS and sustainability expert at VelocityEHS, a cloud software company that delivers a comprehensive suite of EHS products aimed to help companies better manage SDS/Chemical inventories, audits, inspections, incidents, corrective actions, compliance issues and reporting, and safety meetings management.

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