Oil and gas wells pose many hazards that are unique to the industry—for example, the chemical exposure issues that occur during tank gauging and monitoring. However, the most common causes of fatal accidents in the industry are depressingly familiar. One West Virginia employer learned this the hard way when a 19-year-old worker was killed on the job.
On January 12, 2017, newly graduated diesel mechanic Hunter Osborne was working as a spotter for U.S. Well Services at an oil and gas well site in Antero, West Virginia. He was spotting for a tractor-trailer loaded with sand as the truck backed up to a silo for unloading. Something went wrong, and Osborne was struck by the truck and then pinned against the silo, suffering fatal crushing injuries. Following an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigation of the incident, OSHA cited U.S. Well Services for a serious violation of the General Duty Clause, proposing a fine of $12,675. The employer has appealed the citation.
The incident wasn’t unusual for the industry. According to a 2014 Fact Sheet on the oil and gas industry published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), transportation incidents account for just under half of fatal injuries in the industry. Contact with objects and equipment—a category that includes struck-by and caught-between incidents of the type that killed Osborne—accounts for another 26% of fatal injuries, meaning that the two categories together account for three out of four fatalities in the industry. But the unfortunate thing in this case—and the reason U.S. Well Services may have grounds for an appeal—is that they were doing exactly what OSHA says to do to reduce the risk of this type of accident.
A Safety Quandary
Large moving pieces of equipment, including tractor-trailers and cement trucks, are common on well sites, and OSHA repeatedly mentions struck-by hazards as a category of hazards that should be addressed by well servicing companies on its oil and gas well drilling and servicing eTool. The abatement method of choice for this hazard, recommended by OSHA over and over again? Use a spotter to direct moving equipment, and keep nonessential personnel clear. But Osborne was serving as a spotter when he died. So, is there more that employers can do to keep workers safe in situations like this one?
OSHA realizes that spotters are at increased risk and recommends protecting them with these do’s and don’ts:
- Do make sure that spotters and drivers agree on hand signals before backing up.
- Do instruct spotters to always maintain visual contact with the driver while the vehicle is backing.
- Do instruct drivers to stop backing immediately if they lose sight of the spotter.
- Do provide spotters with high-visibility clothing, especially during night operations.
- Do not permit spotters to use personal mobile phones, personal headphones, or other items that could pose a distraction during spotting activities.
- Do not give spotters additional duties while they are acting as spotters.