OSHA: lack of burn protection contributed to oil workers' injuries

Last August, a gas well fire in part of the Marcellus Shale formation in West Virginia seriously injured three workers. Now, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has assessed a fine against the responsible company, a nationwide oil and gas company called Hall Drilling, LLC, for putting its workers at serious risk. In fact, OSHA found two serious workplace safety violations that likely contributed directly to the serious burns and other workplace injuries the three employees suffered.

According to press reports, a spark from the well ignited methane gas that was underground. It sent a giant fireball into the air, which set off a blaze on the floor of the gas rig that burned for an hour. All three of the injured workers had to be hospitalized for their burns -- two of them had to be airlifted.

"The hazardous nature of oil and gas drilling operations requires employers to find and fix the hazards. In this case, ensuring the use of proper personal protective equipment, such as flame-resistant clothing, could have helped in protecting the workers," the director of OSHA's Charleston Area Office said in a statement.

Failing to provide the workers with flame-retardant clothing at a potentially explosive natural gas well is, as OSHA says, is a serious violation. In OSHA parlance, a serious violation is one in which there is a substantial probability that the hazard could cause serious injuries or death and that the employer knew or should have known about.

The other violation, also considered serious, was Hall Drilling's failure to protect its workers from flash fires like this one, which are unfortunately hard to predict or prevent in natural gas fracking. Apparently, workers on the rig were directly exposed to the explosion, fireball and fire.

OSHA proposes to fine the company $12,600, which will be in addition to any workers' compensation payments made to the three men for their workplace injuries. By law, Hall Drilling has 15 days to contest the fine and citations.


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