Chemical plants have been around for hundreds of years, and thousands were killed throughout the centuries due to low safety standards mixed with the volatility of chemicals. The reality of industrial chemical manufacturing is that one small misstep can land workers in the hospital—or worse. For this reason, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) had created a “Process Safety Management of Highly Hazardous Chemicals” (PSM) regulations. OSHA created this standard to minimize “the consequences of catastrophic releases of toxic, reactive, flammable, or explosive chemicals.” However, OSHA exempted one industry from these standards despite its daily handling of severely hazardous chemicals.
Oil & Gas Exemption
The oil and gas industry was initially placed under PSM regulations; however, it was exempted in 1992 due to a previously discussed proposal. Because the standards in this proposal were meant to cover the gas and oil industry specifically, OSHA allowed the PSM regulations to pass over the production and manufacturing of oil and gas. However, OSHA wrote these proposed oil and gas standards in the early 80’s. After nearly 20 years of debate, they were abandoned in 2001—leaving drilling companies exempt from regulation from both PSM and industry specific standards.
Oil & Gas PSM Exemption Revisited
In 2013, an explosion involving the West Fertilizer Company in West, Texas killed 15 people and injured 160 others. This explosion, while not directly related to the oil and gas industry, caused President Barack Obama to create an executive order that directed OSHA to review several regulatory reforms regarding chemical plants. One of the mandated evaluations that the President requested from OSHA was to review the oil and gas industry’s exemption status from PSM regulations. However, OSHA has yet to release any news regarding oil and gas chemical safety regulations—PSM or otherwise.
There are three possible scenarios concerning OSHA’s response to President Obama’s mandate:
- OSHA is currently still reviewing the PSM regulations and determining if the oil and gas industry should fall under PSM regulatory status.
- OSHA is not going to place the oil and gas industry under PSM regulations because OSHA is currently drafting specific safety standards that will be more effective for the industry.
- OSHA has yet to release its statement—and possibly doesn’t plan on ever releasing a statement—that it will do nothing to increase the safety standards of the oil and gas industry.
Regardless of OSHA’s ultimate decision, the oil and gas industry will continue to enjoy an exemption from hazardous chemical safety standards until OSHA says otherwise.
Oil & Gas Regulations Requested by Safety Board
While OSHA continues to deliberate over the regulations of the oil and gas industry, another national safety board is requesting that OSHA make a swift decision. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) wrote in 2014 that the high rate of worker injury and fatality in oil and gas production, specifically in accidents involving catastrophic releases of oil and gas, more than justifies the industry to fall under PSM standards. Based on these findings, the CSB requested that OSHA eliminate the exemptions.
However, as it stands now, OSHA has done nothing to respond to the CSB’s request. Due to the silence from OSHA on this subject, it is hard to believe that regulations will change anytime soon. Unfortunately, this means oil and gas industry workers will continue to be unnecessarily exposed to hazardous chemical dangers while similar chemical production workers are kept safe under PSM standards. Hopefully, this discrepancy in industry practices will be corrected soon.