Oil and gas slips through cracks of new OSHA rule

By Pamela King | 05/17/2016 07:30 AM EDT

A federal regulation aiming to increase reporting of on-the-job injuries and illnesses could be expanded to include oil and gas fields, where workplace death rates are among the highest in the nation.

A federal regulation aiming to increase reporting of on-the-job injuries and illnesses could be expanded to include oil and gas fields, where workplace death rates are among the highest in the nation.

The Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has changed a rule that directed employers to document injuries and illnesses but didn’t require them to send those logs to OSHA. The new rule addresses the record-keeping loophole that made it nearly impossible to accurately assess the day-to-day hazards.

Under the new rule, employers with 250 or more workers or smaller employers in certain industries will electronically submit to OSHA the injury and illness data that they are already required to collect. Still, the new rule doesn’t apply to oil and gas drilling, which OSHA hasn’t designated as a "high-hazard" industry, according to an agency list of the kinds of work OSHA considers extremely dangerous.


That could change, according to OSHA officials, who acknowledge the industry’s high fatality rate suggests the public needs to know more about injuries and illnesses occuring in oil and gas fields.

"[W]e missed them," Mandy Kraft, a spokeswoman in Labor’s Office of Public Affairs, wrote in an email. "We are further investigating this at the moment."

To be included on the list, an industry must have a high injury rate, said OSHA chief David Michaels. He has raised concerns that the injury rate for oil and gas appears to be below the rate for most other industries, even though its death rate is "far higher than the national average."

Michaels has attributed the disconnect to a "culture" of oil and gas companies failing to report injuries (EnergyWire, Dec. 3, 2014). In an email yesterday, Michaels said his assessment was based on conversations with oil and gas employers and workers, as well as the contrast between high rates of fatalities and severe injuries and the low rate of injuries recorded on employer logs.

American Exploration & Production Council (AXPC) President Bruce Thompson said he wasn’t familiar with Michaels’ previous comments on the industry’s reporting culture but would take "great issue" with the characterization. Council members — which include Anadarko Petroleum Corp., Chesapeake Energy Corp. and Occidental Petroleum Corp. — are dedicated to tracking accidents on their worksites, he said.

"We take the culture of reporting safety and accidents very, very seriously," Thompson said. "This is a critically important element for us."

AXPC submitted a comment on OSHA’s proposed requirement in August 2014. The council said certain amendments to the proposed rule only added "complexity to a relatively straightforward well-defined process."

Thompson said yesterday that he was "pleased and surprised" to see that AXPC’s members would not be significantly affected by the rule.

"It’s nice to have a win occasionally," he said.

OSHA’s exclusion of oil and gas from its high-hazard industries list is a symptom of a deeper problem with health and safety data collection, said Peter Dooley, a consultant to the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.

"The whole trying to characterize high-hazard industries by using available injury data can be a pretty blunt tool in the sense of there’s a lot of problems with the current reporting systems and the ways that industries often under-report and complicated by the whole issue of the severity of some injuries in some industries versus others," Dooley said. "This is an example of where often OSHA’s attempt to be targeting may not have the best information available to it in order to make those distinctions."

Dooley drew a comparison to OSHA’s inspection targeting programs, which rely on self-reported injury and illness rates. If those data are not reliable, he said, they skew the targeting system so that certain hazards never rise to regulatory attention.

OSHA’s new reporting requirement is an "important step forward" in addressing that problem, Dooley said.