On February 12, 2016, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) jointly published a hazard alert for the Oil and Gas Industry on tank gauging and sampling. The alert identifies common hazards posed by manual tank gauging and sampling operations during oil and gas extraction, including worker exposures to (1) oxygen-deficient atmospheres, (2) chemical inhalation hazards, and (3) explosive hazards. The alert goes on to recommend a number of safety controls to address those hazards based on information obtained from a recent NIOSH study of nine worker fatalities occurring between 2010 and 2014 during manual gauging or sampling of production tanks; a NIOSH study on chemical exposures at well sites in Colorado and Wyoming in 2013; and an OSHA-led industrial hygiene survey of well sites in North Dakota in 2014. 

To protect employees from these exposures, the agencies recommend that employers take the following steps:

  • Implement engineering controls (e.g., remote monitoring) that would eliminate the need for manually opening production tank hatches;
  • Install pressure indicators and oxygen monitors to alert employees to unsafe conditions;
  • Conduct written exposure assessments with particular focus on air emissions and chemical contaminants; 
  • Provide comprehensive training on the hazards of tank gauging and sampling and corresponding safety practices;
  • Implement working procedures that ensure employees work in pairs and with a designated first responder when there is a possibility of exposure to process fluids;
  • Use alternative protective measures and effective personal protective equipment (e.g., respirators and flame resistant clothing) when remote gauging or sampling is not feasible; and
  • Establish and practice emergency response procedures that address the potential for fires and explosions.

The purpose of the agencies’ hazard alert is educational outreach -- to try to ensure the oil and gas industry is better informed on potential hazards and available control measures during oil and gas extraction. From a legal standpoint however, the regulated community should assume that the existence of this public document could be used by OSHA to support the elements of a General Duty Clause citation against an employer who did not take adequate measures to address manual tank gauging and sampling hazards. Furthermore, an organization that was known to have received the OSHA alert but did nothing to address the hazards identified could also face a heightened risk of willful citations. 

OSHA generally takes the position that the failure to challenge an agency interpretation of the law should be viewed as acquiescence to that interpretation. Therefore, if all or even a significant segment of the oil and gas industry disagrees with the agencies’ position on whether a particular activity is hazardous or whether a recommended control measure is feasible and would improve workplace safety, now is the time to consider formally raising the issue with OSHA.   

In addition to detailing its recommendations for engineering controls, work practices, and personal protective equipment, the hazard alert supplements information previously provided by the National Service, Transportation, Exploration & Production Safety Network, in a 2015 OSHA Alliance Tank Hazard Alert. The alert further indicates the increasing regulatory focus on production tank emissions, which are already subject to a number of regulatory actions administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). See Oil and Natural Gas Air Pollution Standards: Regulatory Actions, EPA, http://www3.epa.gov/airquality/oilandgas/actions.html (last updated Feb. 22, 2016).