Articles Posted in OSHA Safety Regulations

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The 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, considered one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history, stemmed from an oil rig explosion that killed 11 rig workers and injured 17. While this event received a great deal of media attention due to the devastating environmental damage it caused, it is important to remember that the oil and gas industry accounts for hundreds of deaths, explosions, fires, and spills in the United States each year, many of which go largely unnoticed. By 2016, oil and gas production in Texas is expected to reach an all-time high, mainly due to an increase in oil and gas drilling. While increased gas production means an increase in jobs, it also means that more workers are subject to injury.

In fact, according to a 2010 report by the National Wildlife Federation, Texas ranked first in the top states for pipeline accidents, with 523 significant incidents, 15 fatalities and 60 injuries reported from 2000 to 2010 in Texas alone. In South Texas, one in five fatalities investigated by OSHA in the past decade was at an oil and gas company. According to a February 26, 2013 article focusing on Eagle Ford Shale in the San Antonio Express-News:

-11 worker deaths in the Eagle Ford Shale since 2009;
-35 fatality investigations in Texas by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration since 2009; and
-4,100 drilling permits issued in 2012
The article notes that according to OSHA investigations, federal inspectors found safety violations at the site of every fatality and “often concluded that companies had not taken adequate steps to keep their workers safe.” Michael Rivera, area director for OSHA’s Corpus Christi office, which monitors most of the Eagle Ford Shale region south of San Antonio, stated that although he sees many people working hard to keep things safe, there are also those who just don’t and instead take shortcuts to maximize costs.

Notably, injuries and fatalities are not confined to accidents occurring on oil and gas rigs. Although OSHA does not investigate transportation accidents on public roads, the article emphasizes that 40 oil and gas workers in Texas died while traveling to and from work from 2009 to 2011. In addition, a 2013 study published by the Accident Analysis & Prevention Journal, based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, found that oil and gas workers are 8.5 times more likely to die in a motor vehicle crash while on the job than those in other businesses, possibly due to the long hours worked by oilfield workers and the treacherous roadways these workers must navigate to get to isolated work locations, including Eagle Ford Shale. In fact, according to Kyle Retzer, lead author of the study and a program coordinator with Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 202 oil and gas extraction workers died in motor vehicle accidents while on the job between 2003 and 2009.

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A study recently published in the journal Science suggests federal workplace health and safety regulations in the United States save lives without affecting a company’s profit margin. The study examined data from hundreds of California work sites subject to random Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspections over a ten-year period. Although critics of OSHA argue federal safety regulations are too costly, the study found federal inspections not only reduced workplace injury claims, but also failed to have a negative impact on profits or sales. In the four years following an OSHA inspection, workers’ compensation expenses at companies that were randomly inspected were an average of $355,000, or 26 percent, less than those at businesses that were not inspected.

Michael Toffel, co-author of the study and Harvard Business School Professor, stated it was ironic that the same companies who claim OSHA kills jobs are actually reaping a benefit in the form of reduced injuries and workers’ compensation costs from the inspections. He also said if OSHA inspections throughout the nation created a similar benefit, businesses in the U.S. are gaining about $6 billion in added value from the federal safety program. Toffel believes that number may actually be low as it does not take into account other savings from expenses such as loss of production costs following an accident.

According to Marc Freedman, Executive Director for the Labor Law Policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, OSHA inspections are not problematic for most businesses. Instead, he stated the way in which inspections are conducted and the dynamic between a company owner and OSHA inspectors is the issue. Freedman believes inspections under the current administration are conducted in such a way as to increase penalties. Others disagree, stating OSHA inspections are conducted by law enforcement officials who are bound to note each and every workplace safety violation regardless of political pressure from the White House.

The maximum penalty OSHA may assess for each serious safety violation, when an employer knew or should have known a safety violation would likely result in a worker’s death or serious physical injury, is $7,000. In general, penalties are assessed at an average rate of $1,000 per serious violation. OSHA officials also reportedly take into consideration a company’s safety record and other factors when determining financial penalties. Based upon his research, Toffel believes safety tends to increase following random OSHA inspections because inspectors discuss the problems and potential solutions with companies. Instead of focusing on the violations, Toffel said managers become eager to create solutions that will increase worker safety.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 created OSHA to decrease worker injuries and fatalities. Under the Act, employers must comply with certain safety-related requirements such as providing workers with training, information about safety hazards, and copies of safety test results. Employers must also provide a workplace that is reasonably free of safety hazards. When a serious workplace accident occurs, OSHA will normally investigate whether an employer complied with established safety standards at the work site.

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