Michaels, Howard Cite Upstream Industries' High Fatality Rate

Both mentioned it during Dec. 4 presentations at the 2012 OSHA Oil & Gas Safety Conference in Dallas.

DALLAS –- Silica exposures, workers' motor vehicle accidents, and chemical exposures for employees in the U.S. oil & gas exploration and production industries are three topics identified as problem areas by NIOSH Director Dr. John Howard during a keynote speech Nov. 4 to about 1,500 attendees at the sold-out 2012 OSHA Oil & Gas Safety Conference here. He followed OSHA chief Dr. David Michaels, who almost immediately mentioned the issue of high silica respiratory exposures linked to the sand used in hydraulic fracturing. However, Michaels focused more on the overall fatality rate in oil & gas drilling, which both he and Howard said is about seven times higher than the overall national rate for workplace fatalities.

"This industry has far too many deaths, and we've got to do something about that," said Assistant Secretary Michaels, adding that the anomaly is that the drilling industry's injury rate is not similarly high, possibly because many companies are not properly reporting injuries. "We think many injuries in oil and gas drilling just never get recorded. The problem with that is you'll never really figure out what's going on," he said.

Michaels said safety culture change is the answer, rather than a new regulation specifically for oil & gas extraction. He asked repeatedly for feedback from the safety personnel attending the conference for how culture change can be accomplished, and more than one said injury under-reporting is happening because operators base their contractor hiring decisions partly on how low the bidders' stated injury rates are.

"The [industries'] risks are very high. The returns are very high. This industry is doing great," Michaels said. "But if we don't make these changes, we're going to pay a price."

"It's embarrassing for our industry here -- oil and gas extraction -– to have this many fatalities," Howard said during his speech. He said motor vehicle accidents, many of which involve workers driving pickup trucks, probably are the industry's most frequent fatal event. Howard said NIOSH plans to conduct more research on vehicle safety in relation to oil & gas exploration and drilling workers, as well as fall hazards, fires and explosions, and chemical exposures, and will expand its safety and health research to offshore rigs.

Both praised members of the National Service, Transmission, Exploration & Production Safety (STEPS) Network of operators and contractors involved in these industries for quickly responding to the silica overexposure data released by NIOSH in May 2012. It was based on air sampling at fracking sites in several states. Safety leaders from member organizations promised to address the problem immediately and to implement long-term solutions -– such as using vacuum systems, which one exhibitor at the conference, KSW Oilfield Rental LLC, was displaying in the exhibit hall. A silica short term solutions working group already has developed a document listing guidelines for minimizing respirable silica exposures in hydraulic fracturing that was available at a NIOSH booth in the hall.

In addition, NIOSH offers Rig Check –- 35 inspection forms that workers can use to check tools and equipment typically used on rotary and workover rigs. The forms were created with assistance from oil & gas extraction companies.

STEPS is making a big difference, said Michaels, who mentioned safety stand-downs will be done by STEPS members in Texas and Montana early in 2013. During a breakout session, he heard a few questions about OSHA's requirement that oil & gas drilling workers who could be exposed to fires must wear flame-resistant clothing (FRC). "I get reports from the field of lives that FRC has saved. We don't think there's any question FRC is a responsibility of employers to provide where there is a risk of fire," Michaels answered. "We see close to 100 percent use out there. Thank you for that."

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