Industrial Hygiene: Staying safe in the oil field.

AuthorSimonelli, Isaac Stone

Signed into law by Richard Nixon in 1970, the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) was designed to ensure employees work in an environment free from toxic chemicals, temperature stress, mechanical dangers, excessive noise levels, and other hazards. But in Alaska's oil and gas industry, OSHA safety standards are considered a low bar, with many companies opting to adhere to much stricter safety guidelines of their own making.


"The oil and gas industry focuses on maintaining health exposures below more stringent, updated health-based guidelines, such as the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists Threshold Limit Values," explains Greg Lomax, a certified industrial hygienist with Beacon Occupational Health and Safety Services on the North Slope.

"Many OSHA standards are outdated and less stringent; therefore in striving to meet American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists guidelines, the oil and gas industry often finds itself in a good position meeting or exceeding the maximum allowable permissible exposure limits promulgated by OSHA."

The importance of industrial hygiene goes beyond the need to protect employees. When a company fails to comply with safety standards and there is a resulting injury, it can lead to expensive workers' compensation lawsuits and damage a company's reputation.

In OSHA's Office of Training and Education material, the agency describes industrial hygiene as the "science and art devoted to the anticipation, recognition, evaluation, and control of those environmental factors or stresses arising in or from the workplace, which may cause sickness, impaired health and well-being, or significant discomfort among workers or among the citizens of the community."

OSHA's training material points out that the relationship between workers' health and their environment was understood long before the agency began implementing regulations in the United States. As early as the fourth century BC, the Greek physician Hippocrates of Kos documented issues with lead toxicity in the mining industry. In the same vein, the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder recognized health risks for those working with zinc and sulfur in the first century AD. Pliny created a face mask from animal bladders to protect workers from the fumes.

In the oil and gas industry more rigorous (and modern) systems are put in place to keep employees and equipment safe and clean. These include robust pre-job risk planning and analysis so that contaminants are identified and actions taken to eliminate or mitigate exposure prior to task execution, explains Lomax. They also include implementing preventive maintenance and applying diagnostic strategies on equipment, as well as enrolling employees in medical surveillance to assess them for early signs of...

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