Federal and state agencies have taken several steps recently to bolster the safety record of firms in the oil and gas patch, first by urging Oklahoma exploration and production companies to participate in a temporary work stoppage to address safety and health issues, and second by issuing a nationwide hazard alert related to hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Mid-Continent Exploration & Production Safety (MCEPS) Network asked Oklahoma producers to engage in a voluntary stand-down, or work stoppage, to conduct a “focused safety…talk meeting on all their job sites.” Oklahoma companies have been given until July 20 to perform the stand-downs, during which companies and their employees would discuss safety issues. The stand-down talks could last anywhere from a half hour to an hour.

“OSHA and our stand-down partner, MCEPS, believe there is tremendous value in committing 30 minutes to one hour of your day’s work to [talking] about safety…Stopping to talk about safety brings it to the forefront of everyone’s mind,” the federal safety agency said. MCEPS is an alliance between the oil and gas industry and OSHA that was formed in 2008.

A special meeting was held by the MCEPS Network Thursday to discuss the stand-downs. “It was very successful. More than 500 members of the oil and gas industry attended,” said Liz McNeill, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Labor. Mark Costello, labor commissioner for the department, was one of the speakers at the meeting.

In calling for the stand-downs, OSHA said its Oklahoma City area office since October 2011 has investigated nine work-related deaths in the state’s oil and gas industry and one incident where three employees were hospitalized following a drilling rig fire. “This is a significant rise in the number of deaths in this industry in our state as compared to the last few years,” the agency said.

At the Thursday meeting, David Bates, Oklahoma area director of OSHA, went into the details of the agency’s investigation of each fatality in an attempt to prevent repeats, McNeill said.

The agencies asked the companies to inspect their rigs and conduct safety and health training programs for their employees during the upcoming month, said Diana Jones, a safety official at the state Department of Labor. They have asked employers to fill out forms evaluating the stand-down and send them to OSHA. The forms should be forwarded to the University of Texas website in Arlington at www.uta.edu./ded/mceps.

“Employees [also] have the right to file a [a safety-related] complaint with OSHA and will be protected,” with their names remaining anonymous, she said. If they need assistance, they should call OSHA at (800) 321-6742 or the agency’s Oklahoma City office at (405) 278-9560.

“They can remain anonymous when calling, but also if they provide their name, it will not be revealed to the employer and they will be updated on the results of the investigation. The employee has protection under Section 11c of the OSHA Act from adverse action if it occurs due to their whistle blower activity,” said a spokeswoman for the OSHA office in Dallas.

In another development, OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Friday issued a hazard alert calling on producers engaged in fracking operations to take appropriate steps to protect their workers from silica exposure.

Because large quantities of silica sand are used during fracking operations, NIOSH began an effort with the oil and gas industry in January 2010 to collect data regarding silica exposure during fracking operations. NIOSH sampled the air at 11 sites in five states where fracking operations were taking place. It found that workers downwind of sand mover and blender operations, especially during hot loading, had the highest silica exposure.

Workers who breathe silica day after day are at greater risk of developing silicosis, a disease in which lung tissue reacts to trapped silica particles, causing inflammation and scarring, and reducing the lungs’ ability to take in oxygen, according to the alert. It noted that silica also can cause lung cancer and has been linked to other diseases, such as tuberculosis.

The alert describes how a combination of engineering controls, work practices, protective equipment and product substitution (where feasible), along with worker training, can protect workers who are exposed to silica. Engineering controls and work practices provide the best protection work workers, according to the alert.

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