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
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.