Some OSHA regions helped to organize safety stand-downs with oil and gas industry partners and STEPS organizations during 2013.

Silica, Spills, Lawsuits & Rules

The safety challenges of a booming industry were met on many fronts in 2013, from training and recruitment to regulatory changes and safety stand-downs.

The U.S. oil and gas industry saw a lot of action during the past year. Whether it was educational institutions creating training programs for the industry or OSHA proposing a rule to limit workers' exposure to respirable crystalline silica, the gears were in motion to make sure the industry was not only safe, but also continuing to flourish. Here's a recap of some of the key events in the industry last year and what they mean for its future.

Protecting Workers from Silica Exposure
Perhaps the most important development during 2013 was OSHA's proposed rulemaking on limiting respirable crystalline silica exposure for those who are engaged in hydraulic fracturing, construction, mining, and some other industries.

The detrimental effects of inhaling silica—primarily diseases such as silicosis, tuberculosis, lung cancer, kidney disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease—are not news in the industry. Dozens of oil and gas safety professionals pressed OSHA Assistant Secretary Dr. David Michaels in December 2012, at that year's OSHA Oil & Gas Safety and Health Conference held in Dallas, about how soon his agency would issue the proposed rule and finalize it. This followed a joint NIOSH/OSHA Hazard Alert that showed almost half of the 116 air samples NIOSH had collected at 11 fracking sites in Arkansas, Colorado, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Texas contained silica above the OSHA Permissible Exposure Limit and 79 percent of them were silica exposures higher than the NIOSH Recommended Exposure Limit of 0.05 milligrams per cubic meter. Sand mover and blender operators, and workers who are downwind of those operations, had the highest exposures.

OSHA proposed a new PEL, 50 μg/m3, which the proposed rule says the agency considers the lowest feasible PEL for industry. Replacing the current PEL, which hasn't been changed since 1971, could prevent around 700 deaths per year, according to the agency's estimate.

OSHA published the 755-page rule in the Federal Register on Sept. 12, 2013, and set a 90-day comment period for it. Numerous stakeholder groups requested an extension, so OSHA extended the period by 47 days, giving stakeholders until January 27, 2014, to submit comments on the rule.

The Hazard Alert is available at https://www.osha.gov/dts/hazardalerts/hydraulic_frac_hazard_alert.pdf.

Valley Fever Precautions
Continuing on the front of protecting workers' health, Cal/OSHA has made a commitment to protecting workers in the oil and gas industry -- as well as wildland firefighters, geologists, agricultural workers, and others engaged in earth-moving work or exposed to dusty conditions -- from Valley Fever. Workers in the oil and gas extraction industry in California risk contracting Valley Fever, which is caused by a microscopic fungus that lives in top two to 12 inches of soil.

The agency's October 2013 fact sheet, "Advice to Employers and Employees Regarding Work-Related Valley Fever," outlined the causes of the potentially serious fungal infection and preventative measures while reminding employers to report cases of illness. Because there is no vaccination for Valley Fever, the fact sheet urged employers to take steps to protect their workforces, such as determining whether they work in an endemic area (mainly the Central Valley of California), adopting site plans to reduce exposure, protecting workers against exposure with NIOSH-approved respiratory protection filters, training workers on the risks of Valley Fever, and more. The number of new cases reported statewide has risen dramatically in recent years, the California Department of Public Health has reported.

"Employers need to be aware of the Valley Fever risk and take preventative measures when soils are disturbed in regions where the spores are likely to be present," said Christine Baker, director of the California Department of Industrial Relations, parent agency of Cal/OSHA.

Preparing the Future Workforce
With domestic oil and gas production booming and large numbers of the industry’s workers soon to retire, a challenge that has been dubbed "the great crew change," there are concerns about attracting enough young people who are prepared to join the ranks. One institution, Houston Community College, responded by announcing it will establish the HCC Global Oil and Gas Drilling Training Center. The center will provide training for entry-level oil and gas rig crews. According to the International Association of Drilling Contractors' Drilling Contractor magazine, the center will "replicate the essential components of the rig work environment for offshore roustabouts/onshore roughnecks." The center will hold a skills and safety laboratory named RIG-ONE and will begin holding classes in spring 2014.

On the opposite side of Houston, Honeywell Life Safety executives cut the ribbon on a Training & Customer Experience Center on Sept. 18, welcoming hundreds of customers and media representatives to tour the $3 million facility, which includes simulated confined space, construction, heavy metal fabrication, oil & gas, emergency responder, and utilities/energy environments that illustrate the full spectrum of products offered by three HLS units--Honeywell Safety Products, Honeywell Fire Systems, and Honeywell Gas and Flame Detection--for all of those industries. Mark Levy, Honeywell Life Safety's president, said the location was chosen because it's in the heart of the refineries and the energy and petrochemical industries located in and around Houston, which is a major hub for clients in Latin America, as well.

In addition, Artesia, N.M., held an oil and gas career fair in late October for more than 225 students in middle and high schools. The students who participated were part of the MESA program, which is a program held in more than 100 New Mexico schools to encourage students to pursue careers in math, science, and engineering.

Trouble in the Bakken Oil Field
The Bakken shale oil field in North Dakota has made that state one of America's largest oil producers (second only to Texas), but there were signs of trouble during 2013.

Mineral owners filed a lawsuit seeking millions of dollars in royalties from energy companies working the Bakken because those companies have been flaring natural gas, rather than collecting and selling it. The companies say the gas is burned because they don't have pipelines in place to transport their oil production. The lawsuits argues the mineral owners have lost what could be millions of dollars in royalties because oil companies burn the gas instead of selling it.

The Bakken field also was in the news for what is considered the largest oil spill in North Dakota's history, when a farmer found oil seeping from a Tesoro Pipeline Company crude oil pipeline in one of his fields. The total amount spilled was equivalent to about 20,000 barrels.

In July 2013, an unmanned train carrying oil from the Bakken field derailed in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, which left more than 40 people dead, missing, and injured. Transport Canada issued an emergency directive telling rail operators to ensure that no locomotive attached to tank cars loaded with dangerous goods be left unattended on a main track, and also to ensure brakes are properly set to prevent unintended movement.

Construction of oil transfer facilities has been proposed in the Northwest—primarily in Washington state and Canada, eliciting both support from those who anticipate more jobs from the construction and opposition from others who cite environmental and safety concerns.

Safety Stand-Downs
Some OSHA regions helped to organize safety stand-downs with oil and gas industry partners and STEPS organizations during 2013.These focused on training to address the biggest hazards in the industry, including driving hazards and struck-by injuries. NIOSH Director Dr. John Howard has said the oil and gas exploration and production industry's most frequent type of fatal event is a motor vehicle accident, with many of the crash victims being workers driving company pickup trucks.

This article originally appeared in the January 2014 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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