Does OSHA Help Prevent Oil Field Injury in the Bakken?

In early 2013, OSHA inspectors conducting a safety sweep across the Bakken region, cited safety breaches in 50% of oil and gas wells visited. However, in many cases OSHA lacks the authority to enforce safety because of exemptions and absence of a specific standard for gas and oil drilling.

In the Bakken, the general duty clause precludes inspectors from citing minor violations. Moreover, unless there has been serious oil field injury or death, alleging serious hazards is hard to resolve and may require sign-off by a Labor Department attorney.

In fact, the extensive use of general duty citations indicates a lack of rule enforcement by the gas and oil industry in theBakken. Because there is no industry-specific OSHA standard, officials resort to general industry standards to monitor oil and gas work sites in the Bakken. These are purposely made ambiguous so as to encompass any task from routine office work to climbing a rig tower at night.

On the other hand, where there are industry standards, there are reasons to improve health and safety for that industry. Unless it is electrical work at Bakken gas and oil well sites, the industry is exempt from standards most industries must adhere to. The oil and gas industry exceptions stem from modifications to benefit the industry when drilling-specific standards faced enactment.

Several factors combined to convince OSHA officials that oil field workers were better off following standards tailored to specific industry needs. These issues included the extensive variation in working conditions, highly mobile operations, significant employee turnover and hard to reach work sites.

In reality, oil and gas companies owning wells in the Bakken might not set up machine lockout-tagout safety procedures because they are exempt. Although contractors perform most of the work, they frequently lack operating procedures for the owners’ equipment. This occurs despite the American Petroleum Standard for operators to follow.

In the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota and Montana, it is the contractors who get injured or killed as a result of exemption from federal safety provisions. Oil and gas drilling sites do not have to follow safety provisions under OSHA which would cover process safety management of explosive, extremely hazardous chemicals and specifications on welding and hydrogen sulfide. Furthermore, Bakken oil field workers have benzene exposure limits of 10 ppm versus the 1 ppm of OSHA regulated industry. Operators also do not have to monitor and test for noise levels and standards for lockout-tagout in machine operation are absent.

The lack of OSHA provisions increases the likelihood of workplace injury. Please contact us if you have an injury from working in the Bakken oil fields.