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Avoid Fatalities and Injuries in the Oil and Gas Industry

From a distance, it’s easy to see that oil and gas sites look different than most general industry sites. But even though the work being done at oil and gas sites is very labor intensive and presents multiple hazards, the risks that these employees face each day are not unique.

The top causes of fatalities in the oil and gas industry are similar to those found in general industry. However, the fatality rate for oil and gas workers is seven times higher than other industries, according to the CDC. Recognizing the top hazards causing fatalities and injuries is the first step in developing plans, procedures and training that prevent these incidents.

Like general industry, highway incidents are the top cause of oil and gas employee fatalities. In the oil and gas industry, transportation-related incidents cause four out of every 10 fatalities. Long and irregular work hours, driving on secondary and unpaved roads and traveling in inclement weather conditions are main contributors to these incidents.

Establishing and enforcing a driver safety policy helps employees to recognize driving hazards such as in-vehicle distractions, driver fatigue and deteriorating weather and road conditions. Ensuring that company-owned vehicles are appropriate and properly maintained, requiring seat belts to be worn while traveling and checking employee driving records periodically also help to reduce occurrences.

Contact Injuries
The ever-changing nature of oil and gas worksites requires everyone on site to be constantly aware of their surroundings. Moving vehicles, heavy equipment, high-pressure hoses and lines, overhead cranes and cables all contribute to the second leading cause of fatalities at oil and gas sites: contact injuries.

Three out of five on-site fatalities are caused by struck-by, caught-in or caught-between hazards. Engineering controls such as alarms on vehicles, whip checks on high pressure hose lines, and physical barriers around storage areas help to promote awareness. Signage and temporary barriers can also be used to increase visibility of new or changing hazards and help to reinforce what has been taught at trainings and during toolbox talks.

Fires and Explosions
Open flames, idling engines, site lighting and hot work are a few of the fire and ignition hazards that may be easy to spot at oil and gas sites. Other hazards such as flammable vapors and hydrogen sulfide can be easy to smell. But those aren’t the only fire and explosion hazards at oil and gas sites. Static electricity and changing weather conditions don’t have a smell; they can be harder to predict, but they can also contribute to fires and explosion risks.

Flammable vapors can be released from wellbores, holding tanks, shale shakers, production equipment, generators and vehicles. The higher the prevalence of these vapors, the higher the likelihood that an ignition source such as static, lightning, tools, hot surfaces or frictional heat can be enough to spark an explosion or start a fire.

Monitoring weather conditions, including temperature, lightning, wind and humidity is one line of defense. Monitoring oxygen levels and flammable lower explosive limits throughout the site, and installing shutdown systems, intake flame arrestors and exhaust spark arrests on equipment and machinery at the site can also provide a warning that conditions are approaching unsafe levels and protection from common ignition courses. These engineering and administrative controls coupled with appropriate PPE for everyone onsite work in tandem to help prevent fires and explosions.

Harmful Environments
In addition to chemical hazards, oil and gas employees face different types of physical hazards. Because many sites are outdoors and in large, open areas, confined spaces are a physical hazard, and one type of harmful environment, that can be overlooked.

Storage tanks and containers, mud and reserve pits and areas around wellheads may all meet confined space criteria. Employees who perform work in these areas need to be properly trained and aware of how hazards such as asphyxiation, ignition of flammable vapors, and entrapment can quickly increase in confined spaces.

Hazardous, uncontrolled electrical, hydraulic or mechanical energy can also present a harmful environment. Even if equipment is properly designed, installed, maintained and grounded, injuries and fatalities can still occur if it is not operated correctly. Clearly marking ground connections, posting operating procedures and strictly adhering to lockout/tagout procedures before repairs are made helps to keep employees safe.

Falls from Elevation
In a study of fatal falls among derrickmen conducted by the National Institute of Health, 86 percent of the victims were not using appropriate fall protection. Of those who were wearing a fall protection harness, 63 percent of those fatal falls occurred because the harness was not connected to an anchor point. Most of the fatal falls were from more than 30 feet.

Oil and gas work is physically demanding. It is often performed in extreme weather conditions—both hot and cold. It typically also requires lifting heavy objects, reaching overhead, pushing or pulling large loads, awkward bending and repetitive tasks that lead to ergonomic injuries. Couple any of these ergonomic woes with the demands of the fast-paced job and the need to wear a restrictive fall harness and it can be a perfect recipe for problems.

Failure to guard openings, ladders, open pits, floor holes and stairs is a top violation that is cited during OSHA inspections. Installing fences, railing and other forms of fall protection in addition to requiring the use of personal fall arrest systems (harnesses) for all workers who work at elevation can help to decrease the chance of fatal falls.

Other Hazards
In addition to recognizing these common hazards, facilities also need to look for specific hazards at each site, evaluate risks and prepare for them. Pre-fabricated risk assessments from a corporate office aren’t enough. They also aren’t just exercises to be worked out on paper prior to a startup and put into a binder. Oil and gas sites are dynamic, and risks may change from hour-to-hour, day-to-day or week-to-week. Keeping plans and procedures updated and communicating changes with employees are keys to making everyone aware of hazards so that they are better prepared to avoid them and prevent incidents.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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