Working safely in a dangerous environment

I have just completed my biannual safety classes and testing. These safety briefings and examinations are required for entry into petrochemical facilities. They include computer-based examinations to test your attention during the safety lectures. I have lost count of the number of these safety training sessions I have attended over 50 years of petrochemical adventures. After a while, you start to tune them out and you can pass the tests in your sleep. Of course, this is the opposite of what is intended. I was therefore pleased to see a new interactive process being applied with input from all attendees.

Our class of 24 was divided into four tables. Of the 24, 16 were veterans of these safety training sessions with years of experience in the petrochemical industry. The other eight had never been in a refinery. The class coordinator/trainer adroitly used the experience of the veterans to illustrate the safety issues. He was able to illustrate the many hazards by calling on the experienced workers to provide personal experiences.

The instructor had a great personality and never lost the attention of his class. Early on, he revealed that he had once been a professional boxer. The explanation of hazards included dramatic visual portrayals of the consequences of failure to follow safe practices.

For some reason, the hazards and dangers of industrial plants where there are high temperatures, high pressures and combinations of dangerous products and potential gas leaks became more real than usual. I started to wonder how I had made it through 50 plus years of exposure to the potential hazards without even a minor injury. A guardian angel, pure luck or just being alert?

But people don’t always think of everything…
Temperatures below 20°F froze the valve on the back of a worker’s frack truck. To thaw it, he fetched a blowtorch and put the 4-inch flame to the metal. The explosion blew him 75 feet, over a 7 foot-tall barbed-wire fence, and killed him. It might seem dangerous to apply a propane torch to the back of a large metal tank holding natural gas production waste, as this worker did that morning in 2010 just outside Elderton, Pennsylvania, but in the oil & gas industry it is not unusual.

The oil & gas industry has more deaths from fires and explosions than any other private industry, according to an EnergyWire review of federal labour statistics. It employs less than 1% of the US workforce, but in the past five years it has had more than 10% of all workplace fatalities from fires and explosions.

‘There is little performance data showing there is a safety problem at these facilities,’ the American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s biggest lobbying group, wrote earlier this year in a filing with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. ‘The risk level is not high.’ However, this is not what our safety seminar told us!

Ohio allows wells to be drilled as close as 100 feet from homes. OSHA accident investigations show that explosions at well sites can hurl heavy steel tanks twice that far. Other states ban wells within 500 feet of homes, while some have no rules on how close a well can be. But even 500 feet might not be safe – a 2012 explosion at a compressor station in Colorado launched metal parts more than 750 feet. “If you look at the zoning requirements, they aren’t very strict,” said Vidisha Parasram, who led a US Chemical Safety Board investigation into storage tank explosions. “It’s literally a patchwork across the country.”

A US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) study found 26 explosions and fires since 1983 at conventional oil & gas sites that have killed 44 members of the public and injured 25 others. Often, they were young people ‘hanging out’ at tank sites. The board, fashioned after the National Transportation Safety Board, made six recommendations to government agencies and industry groups when it released the study in 2011. None have been implemented.

Some examples of health & safety negligence leading to disasters in the work environment include:
  • Two rig supervisors continued to drill at an AB Resources well site near Moundsville, West Virginia, in 2010, even after the air filled with flammable methane gas. It then exploded, injuring seven men and melting the rig. The methane came from an abandoned coal mine the Union Drilling Inc crew had already pierced once when drilling an adjacent well. They were using a process called ‘drilling on air’, which is particularly dangerous when the drill bit hits oil or gas.
  • After an explosion killed a company employee, the safety manager of Weatherford, Texas-based C&R Downhole Drilling, told investigators that she was new to the position and did not have any formal training in safety. Investigators believe that the employee was standing alongside four other men in a ‘flammable vapour cloud’ at the Antero Resources site near West Union, West Virginia, in 2013, when a spark triggered the explosion. An employee of Nabors Completion and Production Services, was also killed and three others were injured. In 1998, US EPA had exempted oil & gas sites from Clean Air Act risk management regulations, based on the belief that oil & gas coming out of the ground is ‘unlikely to form large vapour clouds.’
  • In 2008, the rented blowout preventer being used by Premium Well Drilling at a well near Carrizo Springs, Texas, wasn’t fully tested after it was installed and the crew wasn’t trained to use it. The blowout preventer also lacked a shear ram, which would have allowed it to close off the well bore when the crew hit a gas pocket and the well ‘kicked’. The rig went up in flames and one worker was killed. Two other workers suffered burns in the fire at the well, owned by Express Oil Co.
  • Contract workers killed in a 2011 explosion in Wyoming had no formal training or supervision before being sent to install a fuel line. One worker was welding on a gas line connected to a storage tank containing more than 1300 gallons of crude oil at a Samson Resources Co well site outside Casper. The explosion killed two workers, hurled two 4000-gallon metal tanks more than 120 feet and caused a 10-acre fire.

These are sobering thoughts of situations in which a combination of thoughtless behaviours, poor training and lethal products have caused needless accidents, injury and death.

I would like to wish all our readers a happy New Year.

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