The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) isn’t exactly a new sheriff in town when it comes to the oil and gas industry.  Over the past few years, OSHA has relied on several regional emphasis programs for increased scrutiny of this industry.

However, in February, OSHA’s Enforcement Director, Tom Galassi announced a new policy, whereby oil and gas well drilling, well operations and support work are designated “high-hazard” for the Severe Violator Enforcement Program (SVEP). According to OSHA, the new policy is justified because over the past two decades, the oil and gas industry has had a fatality rate at least five times greater than the national average for all industries.

Over a week after OSHA’s initial announcement, OSHA publicly released a February 2015 memorandum delineating more details regarding its new policy. The policy, which authorizes the addition of “upstream oil and gas hazards” to the list of High-Emphasis Hazards in SVEP, is effective for any citations that are issued on or after February 11, 2015, the date of the memorandum.

Under the new policy, a non-fatality inspection in which OSHA finds two or more willful or repeated violations or failure-to-abate notices (or any combination of these violations/notices), based on high gravity serious violations related to upstream oil and gas activities, will now be considered a severe violator enforcement case.

By contrast, according to OSHA’s records, only two employers in the oil and gas industry had been previously added to the SVEP list prior to OSHA’s new policy.  In both cases, the SVEP designation was due to fatalities.

Because of OSHA’s new policy, it is more important than ever for companies in the oil and gas industries to be mindful of their safety programs and the number and type of citations they receive. Once a company is considered a severe violator under SVEP, all of its worksites are susceptible to OSHA inspections, regardless if there have been accidents or complaints.  Additionally, it is challenging to exit the SVEP.  In order to lose the severe violator designation, a company has to be in the program for at least three years, maintain a clean safety record during those three years, and convince OSHA that it should be permitted to leave the program.  If a company fails, it must remain in the program another three years before being re-evaluated.