Preventing Slip and Fall Injuries in the Oil & Gas Industry
Keeping employees on their feet takes more than a casual reminder to “watch your step” during daily toolbox talks.
- By Karen D. Hamel
- Feb 01, 2021
Harsh environmental conditions are unavoidable when working on outdoor well pads. Add in slippery well pad liners, heavy equipment operation, cords and cables, long working hours, demanding ergonomic tasks and a host of other potential hazards and it is little wonder that slip, trip and fall injuries are a leading cause of lost work time.
In fact, the Department of the Interior estimates that about 23 percent of worker injuries and 36 percent of fatalities in the oil and gas industry are due to slips, trips and falls. Keeping employees on their feet takes more than a casual reminder to “watch your step” during daily toolbox talks.
Although each site has unique characteristics and hazards, identifying and eliminating common causes of slip and fall injuries minimizes risk and the potential for slip, trip and fall injuries.
Maintenance and Good Housekeeping
Keeping tools and equipment in good condition is a challenge, especially when operations are running 24/7. However, failure to regularly maintain and repair these items can lead to unsafe conditions. Pumps, valves and fittings that aren’t maintained can develop leaks, which creates puddles that make walking surfaces unsafe.
Lack of maintenance can also lead to other unsafe conditions. For example, poorly maintained hydraulic systems can fail, create spills and potentially release fluids under high pressure.
Even when they are operating correctly, pumps, grease recovery units, pump trucks, blenders and just about everything else onsite tends to leak. This means that both the equipment as well as the areas around each piece get covered with oil and grease. Non-slip grating helps to improve traction, but can be overwhelmed if the areas aren’t routinely cleaned.
Tools, equipment, cords, cables, packing materials and supplies that are scattered around the well pad instead of being kept in toolboxes or in designated areas present tripping hazards. Making time to reorganize storage areas and tidy up both work and storage areas at the beginning or end of each shift can prevent trip hazards from piling up. It will also help to keep walkways, aisles and lanes clear for both foot and vehicle traffic. An added bonus of organized workspaces is that time is not lost looking for needed tools and supplies.
Unless it is part of an established and enforced procedure, good housekeeping usually doesn’t happen on its own, especially on sites with high employee turnover. If good practices need to be established, it is helpful to provide training and assign each person with specific tasks to complete so that accountability can be maintained.
Another often overlooked good housekeeping measure is inspecting and maintaining steps, ladders, guardrails, catwalk and work platforms. These are all areas that can be easily overlooked. Even if they are designed or coated with slip-resistant surfaces or preparations, dirt, spilled liquids and ice can quickly build up and negate the slip-resistant properties if they aren’t regularly maintained.
Despite what many news outlets lead the public to believe, most oil and gas companies strive to be good environmental stewards. Even if it isn’t an inherent part of their corporate culture, strict environmental regulations compel them to avoid polluting our nation’s natural resources.
A key feature at oil and gas exploration, drilling and refining sites is a secondary containment system that is designed to prevent liquids from leaving the site. These systems typically surround all of the tools, equipment and supplies onsite, creating a giant pool. They are sized to capture worst-case scenario spills as well as rainwater and snowmelt.
Secondary containment systems are great for protecting the environment and safeguarding against the pollution that can be caused by a large spill. However, they contribute to slippery puddles caused by rain and snow, as well as leaks from containers, tanks, pumps and equipment.
Well pad operators can handle the accumulation of rainwater or snowmelt in different ways. At some sites, they are able to slope the entire pad so that water drains and collects at one end where it can be managed. Some sites drain water to a retention pond.
Other sites use pump trucks that ride all over the site and vacuum the water. Sites that incorporate newer technologies use filter valves that allow them to release the water and capture any trace amounts of pollutants, such as oil or fuel residuals.
Regardless of the method used, promptly removing any standing water that has pooled helps to prevent slip and fall injuries—especially on well pads that do not have slip-resistant liners. Using raised, slip-resistant grating in work areas, around well heads and in aisleways can also minimize injury.
Personal Protective Equipment
Like other safety hazards, eliminating slip, trip and fall hazards, implementing engineering controls and establishing administrative controls should all be considered before resorting to the use of personal protective equipment.
Because it can be almost impossible to keep well pad liners dry all of the time—especially when it’s raining or snowing—slip-resistant footwear may be a last line of defense to consider for minimizing slip and fall injuries. When choosing footwear, consider all of the other safety factors that the footwear will need to meet, such as fire resistant (FR) ratings, safety toes and steel shanks.
Even the best slip resistant footwear can’t guarantee that the wearer will never slip and fall. Be wary of footwear that claims to be “slip proof.” In winter months, ice cleats may also be an option if raised grates or platforms are already in use at the site. Cleats worn directly on a well pad liner may cause rips and tears in the liner.
Working in the oil and gas industry is physically and mentally demanding. Slip, trip and fall hazards are only one of the many risks that workers face each day, and it typically isn’t one that most workers spend much time considering when there are other hazards that demand their attention. Identifying problem areas, establishing good housekeeping and maintenance schedules and reinforcing safe work habits reduces the likelihood of one of the most prevalent injuries.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.