Eye on Safety: Clothing and Oil Well Deaths

Thursday, September 29, 2011 @ 03:09 PM gHale

Investigators are looking into whether the victims of an oil well explosion in North Dakota were wearing fire-resistant clothing under a federal safety policy some drilling companies don’t agree with.

The policy spells out when workers should wear protective equipment to protect against flash fires during drilling operations.

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Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) maintains that such equipment saves lives. The problem is some drilling companies and groups said the requirements are too extensive and costly.

The Sept. 14 fire at a newly drilled oil well near Williston killed Brendan Wegner, 21, of Montello, WI, and Ray Hardy of Mohall, ND. Doug Hysjulien of Williston, ND, and Michael Twinn of Tioga, ND, were still in critical condition Tuesday in the burn unit at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, an official there said.

The men had been working at a rig owned by Carlson Well Services Inc. of Powers Lake. Houston-based Oasis Petroleum Inc. owns the well, which had been producing for about a month. Neither company has a significant history of inspections, according to OSHA records. Inspections typically come via a complaint, an accident or a referral alerting OSHA to a potential safety problem.

Eric Brooks, OSHA’s assistant director in Bismarck, said the investigation will take up to six months. Carlson officials declined to comment. An Oasis official did not immediately respond to a phone message.

Because the men weren’t wearing the protective gear, the investigation will determine if their work environment or their assigned tasks called for them to be wearing the specialized clothing.

According to an OSHA safety memo issued in March 2010, companies risk fines if they don’t provide clothes during production-related operations, such as valve changes, transferring hydrocarbons, tank heating and using open flames. Fines can range from $7,000 to $70,000, depending on whether a violation was willful.

“The predominance of employers do take the precautions,” Brooks said. “But there are some that, for whatever reason, don’t seem to embrace them. It might be the cost; it might be that they don’t think it’s necessary.”

Brooks said the memo simply clarified an existing policy but others saw it as a new set of rules.

Holly Hopkins, senior policy adviser for the American Petroleum Institute, said OSHA should have solicited feedback from companies before issuing the memo.

“Our industry is committed to a goal of zero fatalities, zero injuries and zero incidents,” Hopkins said. “We believe that OSHA should have gone to formal public rulemaking process if they were basically going to change the rules.”

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