Requirements for proper protective equipment may be overlooked in this booming industry. (Ansell photo)

Addressing Hand Protection Regulations in the Oil and Gas Industry

Requirements for proper protective equipment may be overlooked in this booming industry.

The oil and gas industry in the United States is in the midst of a historic boom, with employment up 40 percent since the recession began in 2007 and 60 percent since it officially ended in 2009. An additional 100 American factories, with 1 million associated jobs, are scheduled to come on line by 2017.

The vast majority of jobs in the oil and gas industry carry risks far beyond the typical workplace. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 138 oil and gas workers were killed on the job in 2012, and the fatality rate in the industry is nearly eight times the national workplace average. The risks are omnipresent, from upstream (extraction) to midstream (transportation) to downstream (refining). Workers come in contact with heavy chains, pipes, and equipment in difficult, slippery conditions and can be exposed to flash fires at any time.

Despite the risks, regulations related to personal protective equipment in the U.S. oil and gas industry are extremely limited. The rest of the world is no different—in fact, overall safety standards are much more lax outside the United States. Every day, these workers go to work lacking the PPE necessary to keep them safe from heavy moving objects and debilitating burn injuries.

Workers in this extremely hazardous environment need and deserve better protection. It's time for the industry to adopt standards and regulations that mandate (1) education about workplace risks and safety practices and (2) the use of appropriate PPE, starting with hand protection.

Adjusting to an Evolving Workplace
Oil and gas is among the world’s fastest-growing industries, and the United States is the driving force globally. In 2013, domestic crude oil production increased by 1 million barrels per day—more than the combined increases in the rest of the world and the largest observed annual increase in U.S. history. And that's just crude oil. The United States also remains the leading natural gas provider worldwide.

Digging deeper, the growth is driven by increased extraction by hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and transportation demands extending the midstream segment. From 2006 to 2012, midstream companies invested almost double what they did from 1992 to 2006, yet pipeline capacity is tight. Oil and gas transportation via rail, truck, and barge is at its highest level since the government began tracking it more than 30 years ago.

Not surprisingly, these new activities have only expanded the basic performance requirements for PPE used on work sites. The industry demands productivity, and workers require gloves that offer excellent grip, dexterity, moisture resistance, and, most of all, comfort. Workers at extraction sites battle invert mud—a sticky, sludgy mud created during the extraction process—that tests the limits of the highly flammable polyester, cotton, or synthetic leather gloves commonly used in the industry.

Common Injuries and the Importance of Flame Resistance
These are dangerous work environments. Historically, the most common injuries are related to extreme impact or crushing. At this point, the best preventative measures for crushing involve:

  • education—making sure workers understand the dangers and take steps to keep their hands away from hazardous areas, and
  • the use of high-visibility gloves that help the wearer and co-workers be more aware of hand placement.

The frequency and severity of impact injuries and abrasions can be prevented with the use of adequate hand protection. Although there are many different approaches and glove designs, the best maintain holistic impact protection without reducing performance or dexterity.

The risk of fire isn't new to the oil and gas industry, but it is increasing as the industry evolves. Fracking creates explosive gases, and flash fires are more common than with traditional drilling. And the more that oil and gas are diverted from pipelines, the more they come in contact with transportation workers who are an accident away from a rupture. Despite the fact that 16 percent of fatalities in the oilfields result from fires and explosions, flame-resistant clothing mandates are limited to some upstream environments, and mandates for gloves are non-existent. Again, this is unacceptable.

Consider: The hands are the contact point for every worker and the instinctive first line of defense in the event of a flash fire. This exposes the hands, and flammable gloves can serve as an unintentional and ill-fated transport mechanism when they ignite. These types of accidents can cause excruciatingly painful and life-changing injuries. Material that isn’t flame resistant melts into the skin, damages underlying tissue and nerves, and often is impossible to remove completely. At best, it results in diminished dexterity; at worst, the result is complete loss of use of the hands. Flame-resistant ("FR") gloves—defined as those that extinguish within two seconds—can significantly reduce both the extent and severity of burn injuries.

The Technology is Here
Oil and gas workers are making unnecessary compromises, wearing gloves that provide adequate grip but poor impact protection or impact protection without flame resistance. These compromises aren’t necessary. New technologies present PPE options that meet every performance requirement without sacrificing much-needed protection.

New interior glove linings provide a water barrier inside the outer layer of the glove, so water doesn't degrade the coating of the glove and moisture never reaches the hand. Additionally, the same concept used to make tires grip the road is being applied to gloves, channeling oil and water away from the hand and providing a firm grip in slippery conditions. To address flash fire risks, gloves are now available that meet the flame resistance NFPA 2112 standard to deliver protection against fire without impeding dexterity or comfort.

These new products balance the protection oil and gas environments require with the performance the industry demands, in ways that were never possible before. Now that these solutions are available, it's important that workers are made aware that safety doesn't require a productivity tradeoff and are educated on how proper hand protection should be used. A commitment to education and adherence is just as important as providing workers with the right product.

While there are costs associated with continued education, they are minimal compared to the costs of injury—lost productivity, training replacements, and potentially long-term care considerations.

Time for a Change
With glove technologies available that meet every performance requirement and safety standard, there is no reason oil and gas workers should be at risk of severe hand injuries due to ineffective PPE. Industry-wide regulations mandating the use of appropriate hand protection are needed and should specifically seek to:

  • Impose guidelines specific to impact resistance. It's time for the industry to collaboratively develop and agree upon standards for impact resistance, with accompanying requirements for use of gloves that meet those standards.
  • Require FR gloves whenever FR clothing is mandated. If a work environment is so hazardous it requires flame-resistant torso protection, the same requirement should be in place for the hands.
  • FR should be Level 4, at minimum, and should require use of FR materials, rather than less-effective spray coatings that often dissipate after a few washings.

These are simple steps that could prevent thousands of injuries every year, and the workers in the oil and gas industry deserve no less.

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

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