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Trends in oil-and-gas-extraction fatalities


A national database that tracks oil-and-gas-extraction fatalities in the United States is a new tool that the Washington, D.C.-based National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) uses to collect data and guide its safety-intervention efforts to prevent further loss of lives.
“The need for that detailed information about some of the key contributing factors to deaths in this industry is not being identified elsewhere,” says Kyla Retzer, an epidemiologist with the NIOSH’s Western States Office in Denver, Colorado. “So we decided to work together to develop some database.”
Retzer was one of two speakers who gave an update on the current trends and contributing factors to oil-and-gas fatalities at the Safety 2015 Professional Development Conference and Exposition, held by the American Society of Safety Engineers in Dallas on June 8.
The Fatalities in Oil and Gas (FOG) Extraction database tracks all identified fatal events involving land-based and offshore oil-and-gas-extraction workers. The database was developed in response to increased fatalities in the sector in 2004, says Ryan Hill, manager with the NIOSH oil and gas safety and health program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Morgantown, West Virginia.
“This is an industry we will characterize as having experienced tremendous growth over the last decade,” Hill says, pointing to the doubling of the oil-and-gas workforce and a 71 per cent increase in the number of drilling rigs from 2003 to 2013. The number of people employed in well-servicing companies rose by a whopping 245 per cent, while those hired by oil-and-gas operators and drilling contractors increased by 62 per cent and 92 per cent respectively. There were approximately 110 to 120 deaths a year on average during the same period.
That being said, Hill adds, “the good news is that the rate is going down and has gone down significantly during this time period.”
Fatal events that get logged in the database are identified through various sources, which include citations and closed investigations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) Occupational Safety and Health Information System, media reports, formal investigations from federal, state and local agencies, motor-vehicle crash reports, emergency-responder and police reports, coroner and medical-examiner reports and death certificates.
Workers involved in the construction of pipelines and related structures or other midstream and downstream activities, as well as non-fatal injuries and illnesses occurring in the oil-and-gas-extraction industry, are not tracked by the database.
The FOG does collect incident-specific information by recording some 35 variables that include operation-types specific to the oil-and-gas industry, whether the incident is related to fatigue or weather conditions, the location in which the incident occurred, whether the worker was working alone and the type of equipment used. Worker-specific information is also collated, encompassing 21 variables, such as the worker’s race, how long the worker has been working in the oil field, the size of the contractor onsite, whether subcontractors are involved and the tasks performed by the worker.
“This is just a tool to understand what is really happening in this industry, so that it can guide health and safety efforts,” Retzer says. She adds that the agency is trying to make the database industry-specific by adding variables and different operational categories.
“Ultimately, we want it to be real-time, so that we can get on the NIOSH website and take a look at what we have so far collected. We are not there yet, but that is our goal. Thirdly, we want it to be customizable, so that we can change it as the industry changes.”
Toxic Plumes
As a result of the FOG database, the first report on suspected inhalation fatalities during tank gauging was published last year. The genesis of the first report dates back to 2013, when the NIOSH was contacted by an occupational health physician based out of California regarding two oilfield deaths, suspected to be related to inhaling volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
The NIOSH reviewed the database for fatalities that occurred from 2010 to 2014 and found nine occupational fatalities in which inhalation of petroleum hydrocarbons had been a likely factor. All the deaths occurred at production tanks. In May 2014, the agency published its first science blog, which includes a series of recommendations to reduce the risk of inhaling VOCs by tank-gauging employees.
“As we started to monitor the fatalities for slightly over a year, we developed a case definition. We knew the worker needed to be working in proximity to a known and concentrated source of hydrocarbon gases and vapours. In these cases, it is the open thief hatch,” Retzer says.
Another possible contributing factor is the new tanks with environmental emission controls that allow for a greater concentration of pressure inside the tank to build up, so that when the thief hatch is open, larger quantities of hydrocarbon gases escape, she explains.
According to Retzer, a second report on the inhalation of VOCs covering the first six months of 2014 is scheduled to be published this year. Future topics that will be looked at in subsequent reports include hydrogen sulphide, dropped tubulars and fires and explosions.
“There is nothing really new about it,” Retzer says of hydrogen sulphide. Nevertheless, two to three fatalities from hydrogen-sulphide exposures continue to be reported each year. “By putting out a special report describing these fatalities, maybe we can work from there and identify where we are going wrong.”

Jean Lian is editor of Pipeline Magazine. Follow us on Twitter @PipelineOHS