OSHA Budget Cuts Likely, But How Deep?

Both Houses of Congress appear to want to cut OSHA’s budget.  The question is – how much?   In the last week both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees passed spending plans that involve OSHA.   The bill from House appropriators cuts OSHA’s budget by about 3%, down from $552.7 million to $535 million for fiscal year 2016.  The Senate committee’s bill cuts even deeper, about 5% to $524 million.   The White House request to increase OSHA’s budget to $592 didn’t stand a chance.

Under the process, Senate and House negotiators will meet over the summer or in the fall to work out the differences between their bills.  With both bills cutting OSHA, it is likely that the final cuts will be somewhere between 3-5%.

The way the game is played in Washington, the details of the budget are usually more significant than the final spending number.  In this case, the Senate Appropriations Committee added a last-minute amendment that prohibits OSHA from spending funds to enforce a new silica rule until it studies new technologies and gets more input from small businesses.  It has taken OSHA five years to publish the silica rule and this amendment would push that off by several more years. The silica rule would not actually be stopped until the full House and Senate approve the bill, with the amendment, but it is a clear warning to the agency to tread lightly.

What does it all mean?   More than anything else, it is more evidence of the toxic relationship between OSHA and Congress.   If you wonder why OSHA tries to push through changes without going through the normal rulemaking process and why Congress comes back after the fact to block those changes, it is because there doesn’t appear to be a lot of constructive discussion going on between the two branches of government.

Offshore Safety – What is working and what is not

For those who are not familiar with the Center for Offshore Safety (COS), it is the collective “campfire’ where the deepwater oil and gas industry can gather to discuss safety.   One of the more valuable things that COS does is define and track safety performance indicators and lessons learned from incidents in offshore oil and gas.  A recent COS  report digs into industry safety performance.   You can (and should) read the full report here, but here are some of the highlights.

Lifting incidents continue to be the main source of offshore safety incidents, accounting for nearly half of the incidents reported by COS members.   The next three sources were:

  1.  Process safety,
  2. Loss of station resulting in drive off or drift off and
  3. Life boat, life raft, or rescue boat.

Need help getting your safety management program in place or addressing SEMS requirements like procedures or training?  Contact me at KenWells@lifelinestrategies.com.

The high number of lifting incidents shouldn’t surprise anyone; it is the time when forces like gravity and kinetic energy can have the biggest impact on risk.   It is also the place where smart companies focus a lot of pre-planning, pre-slung loads and other safety measure.

The report then goes back and looks at some of the lessons that can be drawn from the incidents.    More than half of the identified areas for improvement were in safe work practices and operating procedures.   This is significant because, while safe work practices were one of the first areas that industry tackled when the SEMS rule went into effect, operating procedures continues to come up as an area for improvement.   About 30 percent of the incidents had roots in weak “Quality of Task Planning and Preparation,” In other words, crews are not planning well enough, either because they are not properly trained or supervised.

There is room improvement in the safety data COS collects.   One of the most significant problems is that it only represents deepwater operators who belong to COS.  But this is a groundbreaking report.  In the past, BSEE has gathered incident data and has publicized it in different forms.   Now industry is taking the lead in identifying weaknesses and addressing them in a very public way.

Wake Up and Smell The Coffee – Carefully!

To the list of things that can harm you, add coffee fumes apparently.   An investigative report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel looked at the inhalation hazards for employees at coffee roasters.  As those of us who like our coffee know, it is the aroma that makes for a great cup.  As a result, coffee roasters spend a lot of time sniffing the beans to make sure they are just right.

According to the article, that is the problem.   The combination of amino acids and sugars in coffee beans creates diacetyl,  a toxic compound linked to lung disease.    In the past, diacetyl has been most closely linked to flavoring additives, but the report says it was found in levels that exceeded safety standards in several coffee roasters that do not use flavorings, indicating it was a byproduct of the roasting process.

No danger coffee drinkers or baristas, but a wake-up call for the growing number of small coffee roasters that are cropping up around the country.

Trendwatch: Managers Facing Jail Time For Safety Incidents

Prosecutors are increasingly going after supervisors and managers following fatal or environmental incidents.  The latest example comes from Chicago where a towboat captain was sentenced on Friday to a six month prison terms for a 2005 barge explosion Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.  The incident killed one deckhand and resulted in a significant oil spill.  In this instance, the investigation indicated that the captain ordered the victim to use a propane torch to heat a thaw out a frozen discharge pipe.  As the video shows, the result was predictable.

In late April, a safety supervisor was among the people criminally charged in a 2012 fatality at Bumblebee Tuna. In that case, a worker was trapped in an oven and prosecutors said managers “willfully violating worker safety rules.”

The bottom line is that supervisors and managers have legal responsibilities for ensuring workplace safety and companies that do not give them the proper training and other tools to manage safe work environments face criminal exposure as well.   Are you preparing your supervisors to handle the job?   Lifeline Strategies offers supervisor and manager workshops that can help.  Contact me at kenwells@lifelinestrategies.com. 


One Year Into The Oil-pocalypse – Where Are We On Safety?

From http://quotes.post1.org/
12 month oil price history courtesy http://quotes.post1.org/

June marks an anniversary no one wants to celebrate – It has been one year since oil plummeted from about $106 a WTI barrel to where it is today, hovering just under $60.  No one knows where prices go from here, but if this is the new normal, it is time to take a hard look at what that does to safety in the oil and gas industry.

The news is good and bad.  The bad is that companies are cutting staff and resources and safety departments have not been spared the ax. Individual businesses are dealing with it differently, but everyone is having to do more with less.

Safety managers also say one of their biggest concerns is over added stress on the job.  It is natural for workers to worry whenever there are slowdowns and layoffs.  The problem is that translates into distraction, loss of focus and mistakes in the field.  We know from a AAA study that distracted driving causes about 60% of teen accidents.  What happens when a distracted worker picks up a welding torch or a saw?

The very good news is we don’t have clear evidence that safety is being compromised.   You have to be careful about not drawing conclusions, since incident reporting lags events, but when you talk to safety managers, they are not sounding the alarm.

Part of the reason may be that safety tools are in place and working.  Another possible reason may be that companies were disciplined about not cutting their safety departments too deeply.  There is also the possibility that companies are focusing on core safety programs that are effective and making their cuts in processes that were not all that successful to begin with.

However, one of the key reasons may be that, even though companies have cut workers, they have kept the best employees on the job.   One of the fundamentals of safety is that inexperienced workers are at higher risk of incident.  A study of steel mills a hundred years ago, showed that more than 70% of incidents involved workers with less than a year’s experience.  The learning curve and the churn of new workers have long been recognized as risk factors.  Today, we recognize that concern through programs like Short Service Employee policies.

So when companies keep their most experienced workers and stop hiring new workers, they eliminate one of the key factors for incidents.  Add to that a reduction is actual hours worked and incident rates may actually go down for a short time.

But no one believes that is a long-term solution or the preferred state in the oil patch.   In future blogs I will look at what the government is doing on enforcement during this downturn and what the future may look like from a safety standpoint.