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Deaths increase in West Virginia oil, gas industry

By Ken Ward Jr., Staff writer

As West Virginia’s natural gas industry booms, more workers are paying the price as deaths on the job are increasing, according to new federal government data.

Thirteen workers in the state’s oil and gas industry died during the five-year period between 2008 and 2012, according to the data from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s more than double the five workers who died in the industry during the previous five-year period, between 2004 and 2008, according to the bureau.

The increase in worker deaths came as natural gas production in West Virginia — fueled by the rush to tap into the Marcellus Shale reserves — also more than doubled, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Other states that are part of America’s energy boom also are seeing increased workplace deaths. Texas, North Dakota and Pennsylvania have seen increases in worker fatalities, according to the bureau’s data, first reported last week by the Houston Chronicle.

The Chronicle noted a decline in worker deaths in Wyoming, the only one of eight major energy producers to have “engaged in a sustained state-sponsored effort to reduce workplace fatalities.”

On the national level, some safety advocates are hoping an Obama administration initiative to prevent major industry disasters will help address the growing problems in the oil and gas business.

As part of that initiative, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is considering expanding its “process safety management,” or PSM, rule, which requires employers to closely examine potential accident scenarios and take steps to avoid such incidents. One possible course of action, OSHA has said, would be to eliminate PSM rule exemptions for oil and gas drilling and servicing, and for oil and gas production facilities.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group, wrote to OSHA to say that such an action is unnecessary and unworkable. Drilling is done safely today, the coalition said, and “the industry has rigorous systems in place to protect workers.”

In its own letter to OSHA, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board argued that the exemptions for oil and gas industry sites should be eliminated from the PSM rule.

The CSB said its review found 1,285 incidents at such sites between 2009 and February 2014 that resulted in injuries, worker deaths, evacuation or shelter-in-place orders for residents, damage of more than $500,000 to the facilities or “acute environmental damage.”

“One ubiquitous hazard that the CSB has encountered in the Oil and Gas Well Drilling and Servicing facilities is hot work type activities in which explosions and fires occur from the ignition of flammable vapors in a confined area, such as a tank, during maintenance,” the CSB said.

CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso recommended that OSHA adopt a requirement for employers to use “inherently safer” systems using what it says is a more rigorous “safety case” approach that’s been adopted in the United Kingdom, Norway and Australia. This system requires companies to demonstrate to regulators — through a written “safety case report” — how major hazards are to be controlled and risks reduced to “as low as reasonably practicable.” The goal of the program is to shift responsibility for continued reductions in major accident risks from regulators to the companies.

In a separate letter to OSHA, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health backed the CSB proposal.

“The safety case regime is a proactive, performance-based safety construct,” NIOSH said. The employer defines appropriate controls for safe operation, evaluates their adequacy for the facility, and decides how to implement and maintain them.”

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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