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Fatal hydrocarbon gas risks put employers on regulatory notice

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The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are putting employers in the oil and gas industry on notice about a risk that has led to the deaths of nine workers over a five-year period.

The agencies sent out a hazard alert on Feb. 12 about the potential for workers to be fatally exposed to hydrocarbon gases and vapors and/or oxygen-deficient atmospheres while manually gauging or sampling production tanks, with these exposures believed to be the primary or contributing causes in the nine fatalities from 2010 to 2014.

The deaths first came to light after an April 2015 Wall Street Journal article that noted they were initially attributed to natural causes.

“Tank gauging and sampling is not new, but for there to be these mysterious, almost unexplained, fatalities for workers in the process of tank gauging and sampling is kind of new, and I think it put some folks in the insurance community a bit in panic,” said Alex Beaver, a Houston-based underwriting consultant in Liberty Mutual Insurance's national insurance specialty division.

In the hazard alert, NIOSH and OSHA recommended that employers take several steps to protect workers, including not permitting employees to work alone while gauging or working around the tanks or using safety equipment such as a supplied air respirator or a self-contained breathing apparatus in instances when remote gauging or sampling of the tanks is not possible.

Employers who fail to take such steps are going to be at “a high risk” of receiving citations under the Occupational Safety and Health Act's general duty clause — used by the agency in situations where there is no applicable standard, said Michael Taylor, the OSHA practice team leader for Baker & Hostetler L.L.P. in Washington. The agency will likely use the alert to prove that a hazard exists, is recognized by the industry and that feasible abatement measures exist — requirements to prove violations under the clause — in future citations, he said.

But using this apparatus can create practical challenges, such as the potential for heat stress on days when the temperature surges past 100 degrees, or economic considerations in an industry challenged by low oil prices, Mr. Taylor said.

“It's kind of another nail in the coffin for some of these smaller oil and gas companies,” he said.

Remote tank gauging “is not a simple, quick fix,” Mr. Beaver said. “It's going to take not just one company to come up with a proper, effective and efficient engineering control to remotely sample these tanks. It's going to be an oil and gas community effort.”

Liberty Mutual published a white paper last week that identified five critical occupational disease exposures in the oil and gas industry — volatile organic compounds, silica, diesel exhaust, noise and naturally occurring radioactive material — and included a set of recommendations to reduce these risks.

The compounds exposure, as outlined by the alert, is the major, emerging risk for the industry, Mr. Beaver said.

“Companies are really strapped for cash, and managing occupational disease is an expensive and timely endeavor so these companies need to find partners that they can work with to help reduce the costs,” he said. “Occupational disease is preventable.”