Back to Basics is a weekly feature that highlights important but possibly overlooked information that any EHS professional should know. This week, we examine the hazards associated with oil and gas extraction, and OSHA’s recommendations for oil and gas safety.
Oil and gas industry workers face all kinds of hazards during all the different industrial processes they execute in order to drill and service a well. Employers are required by OSHA to protect their workers involved in oil and gas according to OSHA’s general issue standards, construction standards, and the General Duty Clause of the OSH Act.
According to OSHA, oil and gas workers can potentially suffer from fatalities from the following safety hazards and dangerous conditions:
- Vehicle collisions
- Explosions and fires
- Confined spaces
- Ergonomic hazards
- High pressure lines and equipment
- Electrical and other hazardous energy
- Machine hazards
Vehicle collisions. Workers and equipment have to be transported to and from well sites, which are often located in remote areas and require traveling long distances to reach them. Highway vehicle crashes are the leading cause of oil and gas extraction worker fatalities, and according to OSHA, about four out of 10 workers killed in the oil and gas industry are killed as a result of a highway vehicle accident. OSHA and NIOSH provide guidance on motor vehicle safety at work, including prevention strategies for employers.
Struck-By/Caught-In/Caught-By. OSHA says that three out of five on-site fatalities in the oil and gas extraction industry and the result of struck-by/caught-in/caught-by hazards. The sources of these hazards can include moving vehicles or equipment, falling equipment, and high-pressure lines. Employers must make sure to use the guidelines for powered industrial trucks, machine guarding, and handling materials to combat these hazards, and provide head, foot, hand, eye, and face protection if necessary.
Explosions and fires. Oil and gas workers face the risk of fire and explosion due to ignition or flammable gases or vapors. Well gases, vapors, and hydrogen sulfide can be released from wells, trucks, production equipment, or surface equipment such as tanks and shale shakers. Static, electrical energy sources, open flames, lightning, cigarettes, cutting and welding tools, hot surfaces, and frictional heat can all serve as ignition sources. Employers should follow the fire protection and flammable liquid guidelines when determining best practices for dealing with explosions and fires.
Falls. At worksites, workers might have to access platforms and equipment located high above the ground. Employers must provide OSHA’s required fall protection to prevent falls from the mast, drilling platform, and other elevated equipment.
Confined spaces. Employees often have to enter confined spaces such as petroleum and other storage tanks, mud pits, reserve pits, and other excavated areas, sand storage containers, and other confined spaces around a wellhead. The ignition of flammable vapors or gases is also a concern within confined spaces, and health hazards include asphyxiation and exposure to hazardous chemicals. OSHA states that confined spaces that contain or have the potential to contain a serious atmospheric hazard must be classified as permit-required confined spaces. They also must be tested prior to entry and continuously monitored.
Ergonomic hazards. Workers might be exposed to ergonomic risks such as lifting heavy objects, bending, reaching overhead, pushing and pulling heavy loads, working in awkward body postures, and repetitively performing the same or similar tasks. These risk factors and the potential resulting injuries can be minimized or eliminated through pre-task planning, use of the right tools, proper placement of materials, education or workers about the risks, and early recognition and reporting of signs of injury and symptoms, says OSHA.
High-pressure lines and equipment. Compressed gases from high-pressure lines pose a threat to workers since internal erosion of the lines might result in leaks or line bursts, exposing workers to high-pressure hazards. If the connections securing high-pressure lines fail, struck-by hazards might be created, and so OSHA recommends following the guidance on compressed gas and equipment and pressure vessels in order to combat these hazards.
Electrical or other hazardous energy. If equipment is not designed, installed, and maintained properly, employees may be exposed to uncontrolled electrical, mechanical, hydraulic, or other kinds of hazardous energy. Employers are responsible for developing and implementing administrative controls such as operating procedures to ensure safe operations, such as lockout/tagout procedures.
Machine hazards. In the oil and gas extraction process, workers may encounter rotating wellhead equipment, including top drives such as Kelly Drives, draw works, pumps, compressors, catheads, hoist blocks, belt wheels, and conveyors. Workers can potentially get struck by or caught between unguarded machines, which can cause injuries. Employers should follow machine guarding standards to make sure that their workers stay safe around machinery.
In addition to safety hazards, oil and gas workers face a number of different health hazards, including the following:
- Diesel particulate matter
- Hazardous chemicals
- Hydrocarbon gases and vapors (HGV) and low oxygen environments
- Hydrogen sulfide
- Naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM)
- Temperature extremes
Planning and prevention
With the proper planning and prevention, these hazards can be avoided. Employers should know and evaluate the hazards at their worksites, and use the Job Safety Analysis Process as recommended by OSHA to identify hazards and find solutions. They must establish ways to protect workers develop and implement safe practices for:
- Chemical storage
- Electrical work
- Emergency response
- Fall protection
- Fire protection
- Hot work, welding, and flame cutting operations
- Personal protective equipment (PPE)
- Power sources and lockout/tagout
- Working in heat for long shifts
Lastly, employers must communicate these hazards and train employees, provide PPE if engineering controls are not sufficient, and have a plan for contractor safety and training.
For more information on OSHA’s guidelines for oil and gas safety and health hazards, click here.