Oil and gas groups are lining up to defend the industry's exemption from a worker-safety standard.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has proposed ending the industry's exemption from a safety program called Process Safety Management, which forces companies to adopt a more systemic approach to workplace safety.

But industry groups say requiring the industry to meet those regulations would be cumbersome and expensive for companies.

"Applying PSM to the exploration and production segment of the oil and gas industry is like prescribing painkillers for a paper cut," wrote J. Roger Kelley, chairman of the Domestic Energy Producers Alliance.

DEPA, a group co-founded by Continental Resources CEO Harold Hamm, submitted comments to OSHA on the changes last week, along with the American Petroleum Institute, the Marcellus Shale Coalition and the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

But the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an independent government agency charged with investigating chemical facility accidents, is urging OSHA to end the industry's exemption.

"The catastrophic release potential of oil and gas facilities justifies their inclusion under OSHA's Process Safety Management regulation," CSB officials wrote.

The oil and gas industry's fatality rate is more than seven times higher than the all-industry average of 3.2 deaths per 100,000 workers, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last year, BLS reported an oil and gas fatality rate of 24.2 deaths per 100,000 workers, higher than the 21.2 reported by the notoriously dangerous agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting sector. Last year, the industry lost a record number of workers (EnergyWire, Aug. 23, 2013).

In the early 1990s, OSHA officials excluded oil and gas drilling from the PSM program it developed after a series of disasters at refineries and chemical plants.

Instead, OSHA promised to issue a "separate standard" to fit the industry's "uniqueness." But shortly after the promise was made, presidential administrations changed and the initiative stalled (EnergyWire, Feb. 25).

In other industries, PSM helped lower fatalities and generated more information to help prevent accidents.

The renewed interest in changing the PSM stems from an executive order signed by President Obama after the April 2013 fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas.

Oil and gas producers have generally argued that their industry is fundamentally different than other refineries and other facilities covered by PSM because their work sites are highly mobile and often situated in remote locations.

IPAA, which submitted comments in conjunction with the American Exploration & Production Council, cite CSB data to show that explosions at tank batteries are "infrequent."

The groups also downplayed risks from oil and gas tank batteries, writing that "due to their limited volume, flammable liquids in atmospheric storage tanks associated with E&P facilities (such as crude oil tank batteries) do not have the potential for catastrophic release."

But CSB said its data actually show the high frequency of such fatal explosions and other "high consequence incidents" in the exploration and production field.

"Although the work activity varied, PSM coverage would have required assessing and taking appropriate measures to control identified hazards prior to conducting the work," the agency's comments said.

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