OSHA Guidance: Protecting Oil and Gas Workers During COVID-19
Earlier this week, OSHA published guidance for the oil and gas industry sector as a supplement to the general interim guidance for workers and employers of workers at increased risk of occupational exposure to SARS-CoV-2.
In addition to following the guidance from federal agencies, employers must stay updated with changing outbreak conditions in the local area, including the spread of the virus and testing availability.
Most activities in the oil and gas industry are associated with lower or medium exposure risks:
- Lower (caution): Oil and gas drilling, servicing, production, distribution, and other processing tasks that do not require frequent close contact with others.
- Medium: Drilling, servicing, distribution, and processing tasks that require close contact (six feet) with coworkers, contractors
Hazard Controls at Work
Employers have the responsibility to protect their workers and provide a workplace free from serious recognized hazards—which is more important than ever. Before getting everyone back to work, be sure to conduct a job hazard analysis to help determine the exposure risk level of work activities. If activities do require workers to be within six feet of others, evaluate whether or not these tasks are necessary and consider delaying them.
Based on what is currently known about COVID-19, keeping a safe distance of 6 feet is the most effective way to reduce transmission. In an oil and gas production or processing work environment, social distancing can be easily practiced with the help of engineering controls. As defined by NIOSH, engineering controls protect workers by placing a barrier between the worker and the hazard.
Although you may need to make some changes in production practices, modify the alignment of workstations, including control panels/boards so workers can keep a distance of six feet in all directions. And if it’s possible, modify the layout so workers are not facing each other. Reconfigure communal work environments, such as job site trailers and control rooms, so that workers can maintain a healthy distance. If it is not feasible to space out stations six feet apart, physical barriers
When evaluating engineering controls, make sure you won’t be introducing any additional hazards in the workplace. If you are installing some type of partition between workstations, for example, is visibility unsafely reduced? OSHA recommends removing fans to minimize airborne transmission, but does that bring on a slew of new heat hazards? An important part of your job hazard analysis will be evaluating the effectiveness of controls.
Changing the way people work, also known as administrative controls, should be used to reduce or eliminate the risk of exposure while on the job:
- Provide hand washing stations and hand sanitizers that are immediately accessible to workers, in multiple locations.
- Communicate proper cough and sneeze etiquette; post safety signs encouraging workers to practice personal hygiene.
- Stagger workers’ arrival and departure times to keep people from congregating in control rooms, parking lots, lockers, and other common areas.
- Encourage workers to move single-file when they move around the facility, keeping six feet from others.
- Use safety signs and floor markings as a reminder to workers to maintain social distancing.
- Designate individuals to help monitor and facilitate distancing.
- Reduce the number of people in meetings, hold meetings outside, or conduct them virtually.
- Limit the number of personnel allowed to enter operating areas like control rooms.
Finally, OSHA recommends workers in this industry should wear cloth face coverings in common areas like the drill deck, doghouse, control rooms, and office spaces.
Staying Safe on Breaks
Employers must take the necessary steps to protect their workers and reduce transmission while on break. Post markings and signs to remind workers to practice social distancing everywhere, and create temporary break areas or stagger break times to avoid workers congregating in one area. Using floor signs in these areas can keep everyone mindful of social distancing.
Make sure the lunchroom and all restrooms are properly supplied with soap and water, and provide tissues/no-touch trash receptacles. Remove or rearrange chairs and tables in break rooms, control rooms, and other shared areas to increase worker separation. Additionally, consider scheduling short breaks into employees’ shifts to allow them enough time to thoroughly wash their hands often.
Higher Risk Environments
Although it’s been noted that most oil and gas drilling, servicing, production, distribution, and processing tasks are associated with lower or medium exposure risks, not all environments are the same. If your company relies on shuttle vehicles for workers, for instance, consider the following control practices:
- Limit the number of people per vehicle—use more vehicles or increase the frequency of trips.
- Encourage workers to wash their hands before entering the vehicle; supply hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol for use when arriving at the destination.
- Open vehicle windows if possible.
- Encourage workers to wear cloth face coverings while in the shared vehicle space.
- Wipe down and disinfect commonly touched surfaces (door handles, handrails, seatbelt buckles, etc.) after each shuttle trip.
OSHA also notes that oil and gas workers “working and living together in close quarters where social distancing is not always feasible may increase exposure risk compared to other activities in this category.”
As you begin to welcome workers back, remember your responsibility of providing a safe and healthy work environment. By following local guidance and using OSHA’s general recommendations, you can slowly but safely operate in the oil and gas industry.
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