In the oil and gas industry, workers operate under hazardous conditions day in and day out. It is an understatement to say that safety plays a key role in the sector. Protecting lives and property in and around the facility isn’t only meant to mitigate the risks of damage – it also impacts a company’s ability to operate.
Indeed, those who own or manage a business in the oil and gas sector are no strangers to the challenge of promoting a strong safety culture. The term safety culture was first used after the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine over three decades ago.
A culture of safety (or lack thereof) has been cited as a factor in other catastrophic accidents, including the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill that killed 11 people and spewed oil into the water for 87 days. Companies' approach to safety has been the subject of several investigations, even spurring actions from the U.S. government and the oil and gas industry to improve safety culture as a whole.
There are several main practices designed to ensure safety in oil and gas operations every day. These are based on state and federal regulations for protecting employees and the environment. Here are several strategies that help companies working on oil and gas sites to foster a strong safety culture.
1. Employee Orientation and Training
Mandatory orientation or training sessions help new employees understand safety risks on site before they enter the location. Operator-specific training also gives companies a chance to gauge whether their employees are ready to take charge of running a piece of equipment.
Ideally, these sessions should be conducted on a regular basis to remind employees about the importance of safety when working or handling equipment in the facility.
2. Personal Protective Equipment
All oil and gas sites require mandatory personal protective equipment (PPE), such as safety glasses, hard hats, task-specific gloves, steel-toed boots and flame-resistant (FR) clothing. The simple act of wearing PPE reduces employee exposure to hazards from slippery floors to falling debris.
A reminder about PPE and safety culture, though: Companies must consider comfort when selecting employee workwear. If employees are uncomfortable in their gloves or FR clothing, they may not wear it correctly or consistently. Workers who feel too hot in their work clothes may be tempted to unbutton their shirts or roll up their sleeves, leaving areas of their skin exposed and vulnerable to injuries.
3. Job Safety Analysis
Most companies perform a daily task review – also called job safety analysis (JSA) – before conducting any work. This tool can help reduce incidents, accidents and injuries on site because it identifies all steps, hazards, and safe work procedures of a job before an employee begins doing it. This is an example of a standard JSA process:
Identify Job Steps
Break a single job into a sequence of steps. Each step should involve some major task that consists of a series of movements. Examine each series of movements in each task of every step in a job.
Determine Potential Hazards
To complete a JSA effectively, identify the potential hazards associated with each step of a job. It is vital to look at the entire environment to determine every potential hazard that might exist.
Recommend Safe Job Procedures
Using the data collected from the previous steps, decide which actions are necessary to eliminate or control to reduce hazards that could lead to workers’ injuries, occupational illnesses or environmental damages.
4. Stop Work Authority
Stop work authority (SWA) grants employees and contract workers the ability to stop work when they see a potential safety hazard on site. And for a lot of industrial organizations Situations that warrant an SWA include a change in working conditions, changes to the scope of work, near-miss incident, improper use of equipment or any unsafe condition. While it is not common to stop a job, a formal SWA program in an oil and gas facility helps protect lives.
To effectively promote SWA on site, management must establish clear expectations and responsibilities. It also has to demonstrate its support to employees by showing them that using SWA comes with no retribution. More importantly, a successful SWA program is in place if management resolves SWA conflicts as soon as they arise.
5. Near-Miss Incident Review (a.k.a. Near-Hit)
Consider this scenario: An employee with a cup of coffee in hand walks down the field, stepping over a wire stretched across the ground. He turns a corner and nearly hits another worker. He quickly steps to the side, accidentally pushing a shelving unit, on which a tool near the edge of the top shelf falls and hits the ground – all while spilling coffee on the floor.
No one is hurt in this hypothetical incident. But the employees in it experience multiple near-miss incidents, any one of which could have led to a serious injury. Some floor managers don’t consider near-miss incidents to be a serious concern, and to be fair a lot of the reporting on near-misses is up the the individual employee.
Managers and employers who track near misses investigate how and why they occurred. Corrective action in response to a near miss can prevent similar or more serious incidents in the future.
Also, many companies share near-miss incident information with their networks and pass it to safety organizations to discuss it further. This proactive process of review helps protect others who may encounter similar situations.
6. Subcontractor Evaluation
In most industrial sectors, hiring subcontractors or outside contractors is a common practice. To ensure safety is at the forefront of every operation every day, companies select their subcontractors through a safety record evaluation process. This record is a testament that subcontractors have a safety program and that they are committed to promoting a safety culture as well.
While hazards are present every day, industrial sectors from heavy construction to oil and gas do their best to build a culture of safety. From floor managers to shift employees to subcontractors, everyone on site should share a commitment to safety. Company leaders also need to have visible involvement and support of the ongoing pursuit of safe operations by establishing workplace expectations and limitations that each employee must understand, accept and practice.
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