Dr. David Michaels
Assistant Secretary of Labor
for Occupational Safety and Health
Oil & Gas OSHA Safety Conference 2010
Tuesday, November 30, 2010
Thanks to everyone who has turned out for this conference and especially to the organizers and presenters.
It has been almost a year since I arrived at OSHA, and in this short time we have accomplished a lot within the agency to contribute to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis' vision of Good Jobs for Everyone. From OSHA's perspective -- and everyone here, I'm sure -- it follows necessarily that the only good jobs are safe jobs.
In the last year, responding to the continuing national tragedy of more than 4,400 working men and women dying on the job every year, OSHA pursued a dynamic agenda:
We stepped up enforcement, strengthened the agency's penalty structure, added new emphasis programs, and conducted more outreach to help workers in high-hazard occupations understand the hazards they face, their rights under the law and how to exercise those rights.
OSHA Levels the Playing Field
This is in the best interest of employers. Well-trained and empowered workers are better prepared to help alert management to potential workplace hazards before tragedy strikes. Informed workers are safely inoculated against unscrupulous employers who would seek to exploit them in order to gain an unfair advantage in the marketplace.
Ultimately, strong enforcement levels the playing field for good employers who want to do the right thing for their workers.
I want to assure everyone here today that OSHA's active focus on standards and enforcement does not diminish the value of our cooperative programs -- particularly our Voluntary Protection Programs.
I very much appreciate the example VPP worksites set for all other employers. In fact, our enforcement and standards-development efforts are geared toward motivating others to reach the high levels of worker protection that VPP participants have achieved.
Resolving to learn from past failings
Nevertheless, faced with limited resources in the current economic climate, OSHA is directing its focus where workers are in the most need of protection.
In May, when my deputy Jordan Barab addressed members of the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association meeting in San Antonio, he pointed out a troubling trend: In the prior three months alone, 58 workers had died in explosions, fires and collapses at refineries, coal mines, an oil drilling rig, and a power plant construction site.
These catastrophes all fall into the category of low frequency, high-consequence incidents. Not only are they powerful reminders of the risks faced by workers every day here and around the world, but they also present a challenge to industry and enforcement agencies like OSHA trying to determine how to prevent similar events.
In case after case, disaster after disaster, our investigations point to process safety-related problems and, all too often, systemic safety and health problems -- not just in one company but across entire industries.
OSHA's main response to these time bombs in our workplaces is to move forward with national emphasis programs that address these troubled industries.
Injury and Illness Prevention Programs
While stepping up our enforcement and outreach efforts, OSHA is looking at the bigger picture. We need to find ways to get to the heart of operations and change the culture of workplaces so that employers and workers cooperate with a focus on prevention.
Earlier this year OSHA announced a new regulatory effort that would require employers to implement an effective Injury and Illness Prevention Program tailored to hazards in their workplaces.
Implementing these programs in every workplace represents a fundamental change in how employers think about worker safety and health. Instead of waiting for a government inspection or a workplace tragedy to address problems, employers would be required to develop a plan to find the safety and health hazards in their facilities that might injure or kill workers -- and then fix those hazards.
Under this plan, employers would address all recognized hazards covered under the General Duty Clause, not just ones for which OSHA has standards.
This is straightforward and hard to argue: To save workers' lives, we want all employers to find and fix their hazards.
Injury and Illness Prevention Programs are hardly new. Thousands of the best workplaces use them -- including many companies represented at this conference.
Those who have implemented such a program have witnessed for themselves the resulting benefits: high efficiency, greater worker productivity and lower costs make their workplaces strong and competitive.
And, like the flip side of our enforcement efforts, these prevention programs level the playing field in both domestic and global markets, allowing responsible employers to survive whether the economy is in a surge or in a slump.
However, these programs succeed only when they give workers a voice and a role in the process of making workplaces safer and more healthful. There is abundant evident from successful companies that when employers and workers cooperate as partners, these prevention programs are more effective.
To explore this idea of requiring Injury and Illness Prevention Programs, OSHA held five stakeholder meetings around the country with significant participation by employers and labor unions.
We are eager to move forward to the next stages of the rulemaking process, and I am counting on members of the oil and gas industry and everyone else to participate with your comments and perspective.
With the brief time I have left to speak with you this morning, let me turn to two items specific to your industries: Flame-Resistant Clothing and responsibility for safety and health on oil and gas rigs.
Flame-Resistant Clothing (FRC)
At any moment in the United States, oil and natural gas is being extracted using more than 1,800 active drilling rigs, a larger number of work-over rigs, and production facilities at thousands of wells across the country.
During the extraction process, thousands of workers are exposed to many safety and health hazards, including exposure to hydrocarbon vapors that can be ignited and cause flash fires.
When employees are exposed to these fire hazards, a proven supplemental protection against burn injuries is flame resistant clothing -- FRC.
We have seen cases where employees physically located next to each other were exposed to a flash fire, one lived and one died. Earlier this year in one of these incidents, two workers received 2nd and 3rd-degree burns over 50 percent of their bodies from a flash fire. The fire was triggered when gas vapors released from an open pit entered a diesel engine that was running at that particular time.
Now here's the point: One of these two workers had donned his FRC and while he was burned, he survived. The worker next to him was not wearing FRC, and he sustained severe burns and subsequently died from his injuries. His name is Abel Garcia. He was only 39 years old.
So, we know that using FRC greatly improves a worker's chances of surviving a flash fire, and it reduces the severity of any burn. In severe cases, the use of FRC provides workers a chance at regaining a better quality of life after a terrible burn.
FRC is the last line of defense for exposure to a flash fire when an engineering control fails or a safety practice is not adhered to. For a reminder that engineering and administrative controls can and do fail, we need look no further than the massive well blowout, explosion and fire on the Deep Water Horizon drilling platform earlier this year that caused the death of 11 workers and many injuries to other workers.
OSHA's general industry standard for personal protective equipment requires employers to provide and ensure the use of FRC in oil and gas drilling, servicing, and production-related operations when workers are exposed to potential fire hazards.
Since the mid 1990s OSHA has required Flame-Resistant Clothing for our own compliance officers and for workers in the refinery industry where there is a potential for flash fires. It is only right to protect oil and gas workers in extraction and production operations at least as well as workers in oil refineries who process hydrocarbons under conditions that are much better controlled.
While the oil and gas extraction industry has worked to reduce the risk of flash fires, these efforts have not stopped them from happening. More must be done to remove this known hazard that causes debilitating burns, injuries and worker deaths.
National Fire Protection Association regulations 2112 and 21131 apply, giving guidance to drilling, well servicing and production-related operations.
Many employers in the industry have been requiring the use of Flame-Resistant Clothing for years. FRC is widely available in all clothing types, with fabric weights, breathability and comfort comparable to non-FR clothing.
The cost of providing an outer layer of FRC is not significantly more than supplying non-FRC cotton work clothing that many contractors already supply.
Furthermore, the investment of an FRC program is more than offset by the cost of treating and rehabilitating just one worker after a flash fire in which non-flame-resistant work clothing ignites and burns -- or melts -- on a worker's body.
I am aware that some employers are having difficulty obtaining Flame-Resistant Clothing because of current high demand in the industry. Just remember that OSHA is always willing to help employers obtain reasonable abatement.
I very much appreciate industry efforts to provide PPE that will reduce the risk of serious burns to your workers. Taken as part of a larger overall safety and health effort, I challenge the oil and gas industry to find and fix hazards like this by implementing Injury and Illness Prevention Programs.
These programs are especially important for the oil and gas industry because there are no specific OSHA standards to address many of the unique hazards you face.
I'd like to remind everyone that the last session of this conference on Wednesday offers a panel discussion on the enforcement policy for Flame-Resistant Clothing. If you have any questions on FRC issues, I encourage you to attend the session on Wednesday at 3:30 p.m.
Responsibility for Worker Safety and Health on Rigs
I also want to say a few words about the responsibilities for worker protection that the owner or operator of an oil and gas well may have at drill sites.
In the oil and gas industry, the "company man" is the representative of the oil or gas company or the operator on a drilling location who is responsible for drilling supervision and operational issues -- including the safety and efficiency of the project.
The use of the company man as an intermediary can absolve the well owner and operator from legal responsibility when OSHA identifies problems at the well site and issues a citation. But I want to let you know -- those of you who represent company owners and operators -- that the use of a "company man" or intermediary may let you run from legal responsibility, but we are not going to let you hide. We want you to take responsibility for the safety of all employees right down to the drill site.
Therefore, whether an owner is cited by OSHA or not, OSHA plans to name the owner or operator of a well in press releases we send after we issue citations to the downline drilling company.
Our goal here is to ensure that good operators make every effort to ensure that all appropriate precautions are being taken to protect workers at their drilling and servicing sites.
Let me leave you with this final thought: Last week, on Thanksgiving Day, we all joined family and friends, ate well, and gave thanks for the blessings of home and hearth.
Some of us watched football on television, went to the movies or went shopping together, or simply enjoyed a quiet, happy day off from work, surrounded by loved ones.
This happy scene was not shared by thousands of families across our nation. In these homes an empty chair at the dining table was a painful reminder of someone this year who did not return home from work. Someone's spouse, parent or child was killed on the job, and in these households the joy of the holiday was replaced by grief.
This conference offers many solutions for safer and more healthful workplaces. I challenge every company representative and every worker here today to carry back from this conference a newer, stronger resolve to act on the lessons learned from past errors in this industry.
The catastrophes we have seen must serve as a solemn warning that management cannot afford to be lulled into complacency by DART rates and other statistics that, like the stock market, offer no guarantee of future performance against catastrophic incidents.
Let's "sweat the small stuff" down to the last detail in every worksite and let's be sure to involve workers in the process.
As we enter a new winter season of holidays, I urge you to make a New Year's resolution to do everything possible to ensure that all workers in the oil and gas industry have a safe and healthy 2011 -- and to carry this resolve into every year that follows.
1Selection, Care, Use, Maintenance of Flame-Resistant Garments for Protection of Industrial Personnel Against Flash Fire, 2007