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An administrative law judge of the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission partially affirmed one safety citation issued under the general duty clause against an energy company, but vacated another citation issued by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration under its walking-working surfaces standard.
In January 2016, an OSHA compliance officer inspected an oil well site located in Grady County, Oklahoma, as part of a regional emphasis program for upstream oil and gas activities. The inspection involved multiple employers working at the location, including Elk City, Oklahoma-based Bronco Oilfield Services Inc., according to the ruling in Secretary of Labor v. Bronco Oilfield Services Inc. released Friday.
The officer determined that Bronco violated the general duty clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which requires employers to provide their employees with a place of employment that is “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious harm,” based on its failure to install a pressure relief valve for each pump being used and a failure to tie down the pipe sections to prevent their unintentional movement. The officer stated each of these failures exposed the company’s employees to blunt force trauma, lacerations and potential death due to overpressure resulting in a line or system failure, which could result in shrapnel and exposure to contents under extremely high pressure, according to the ruling.
The officer also concluded that Bronco violated OSHA’s walking-working surfaces standard due to employees reaching over an unguarded well cellar to attach pipe to a “Christmas tree,” which is a series of valves mounted to the top of a wellhead to control the flow of hydrocarbons and other fluids into and out of the well. The agency issued two serious violations and proposed total penalties of $6,000, which the company contested.
The administrative law judge overseeing the case ruled that the pump system presented a hazard based on the “tremendously” high pressure at which the equipment operated and the officer’s testimony about deaths that have occurred due to overpressured equipment operating at much lower pressures, according to the ruling. The company cited its policy of implementing a buffer zone, which placed employees behind barriers to prevent exposure to the hazard, and the existence of gauges and valves designed to protect against overpressurization in arguing against the citation. But the judge found that these precautions aimed to prevent exposure to the hazard, not that the hazard did not exist.
The judge said “the implementation of such devices or policies does not negate the existence of the hazard in the first instance; rather, they are designed to abate an already recognized hazard.”
The company’s pump operators were exposed to the hazardous condition of highly pressurized lines and equipment, the company knew of the hazardous condition and the Labor Department proved that there was a feasible way to eliminate or materially reduce the hazard the judge determined in partially affirming the citation under the general duty clause.
However, the judge also determined that the Labor Department did not establish by a preponderance of the evidence that Bronco’s use of a single pressure relief device failed to address the explosion hazard associated with an overpressure event. Bronco provided “convincing evidence” that the combination of kick-out gauges, a single pressure relief valve, iron pipe and components rated almost 50% higher than the operational pressures and its work practices constituted an effective plan designed to prevent an overpressure explosion and vacated an item of the general duty clause citation.
The judge also agreed with Bronco’s argument that the walking-working surfaces standard did not apply because the well site, including the well cellar, was not its “permanent place of employment” as required in the standard and vacated that citation.
The judge assessed a lower $2,000 penalty for the partially affirmed violation.
“Although the high pressure in this pump and pipe system exposed (Bronco’s) employees to a hazard capable of causing significant injury and death, the likelihood of that accident actually coming to fruition was low,” the judge said. “The buffer zone policy kept (Bronco’s) employees out of the zone of danger, with the exception of the pump operators, and the whip checks located at the pumps provided at least some limited measure of protection for the operator’s cabin occupants.”
The judge’s decision became a final order of the commission Friday.
An attorney for the company could not be immediately reached for comment.
An administrative law judge of the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission affirmed citations issued against a Missouri roofing contractor for failing to use fall protection, but reduced the penalties proposed by federal regulators.