The Oil-pocalypse II – Enforcement Increases While Activity is Down

It has been a year since oil prices started their slide and an earlier post looked at the impact on safety.  Now lets look at how the government is focusing on safety performance.  Industry wants and needs to operate safely, but you can bet more than a few managers might wish they had a break from reporting requirements or strict compliance with regulations while business is so poor.    However, if anything government oversight is increasing.

Just tDepartment of LAbor logohis week, the head of OSHA’s Bismark reportedly said the agency would target oil and gas operations in the Bakken, especially operations where companies pay “speed bonuses” that the agency thinks could cause managers to sacrifice safety.  While the announcement may be new, OSHA’s ramp-up in its focus on oil and gas is not.

In February, OSHA included oil and gas as a “high-hazard” activity under its Severe Violator Enforcement Program (SVEP).  That means that if OSHA performs an inspection for a non-fatality incident and finds  two or more willful or repeated violations or failure-to-abate notices the case can now be considered an SVEP case.  There are also indications that OSHA wants to increase the number of cases it makes against oil and gas companies, not just the contractor companies whose employees may have been injured.

Underlying many of OSHA’s concerns is a belief that oilfield incidents are falling through the cracks, in part because so much of the work is not strictly categorized as oil and gas work. For example, a truck driver or electrician who is injured on a lease site may not be represented in overall incidents.  In an effort to focus on the overall industry, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has developed its FOG database.  Here’s how NIOSH describes FOG:

Fatalities in Oil and Gas Extraction (FOG) is a national database that collects detailed information about fatal events in the U.S. oil and gas extraction industry. FOG protects workers by monitoring trends, identifying emerging issues, and producing timely reports summarizing fatal events in the industry. FOG data are used to inform NIOSH, industry, and other stakeholder groups, and guide interventions that will prevent future loss of life in this industry.

NIOSH’s first use of FOG was for a report that claimed that nine worker deaths in the oil patch between 2010 and 2014 were cause by caused by inhalation of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).  The report makes a number of recommendations for addressing the problem.

One of the core messages of safety programs is the saying “What gets measured gets done.”    From a government standpoint, that translates as “What gets measured gets enforced.”  That is by no means a bad thing.  Industry does not want to protect unsafe employers.

However,  no matter how long the price of oil stays low or how difficult the financial burdens may be, no one in the oil industry can afford to cut too deeply into their safety programs or cut corners on compliance in an effort to get the job done faster.

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