By Conn Maciel Carey’s COVID-19 Task Force
Continuing its effort to issue numerous industry-specific COVID-19 guidance documents, last week OSHA released guidance for the Oil and Gas Industry to help employers manage the COVID-19 hazard in oil and gas workplaces. The new guidance builds on existing CDC and/or OSHA guidance that we have seen for all employers or from other industry-specific guidance, and adds in a few oil and gas specific recommendations.
To start, OSHA makes clear that the guidance is geared towards oil and gas industry workers and employers, including those in sub-industries and tasks that make up the broader oil and gas sector. In that regard, OSHA provides a table that describes oil and gas work tasks associated with the exposure risk levels in OSHA’s occupational exposure risk pyramid, which divides tasks into four risk exposure categories – very high, high, medium, and lower (caution). Specifically, OSHA groups most oil and gas work tasks in the lower (caution) and medium exposure risk levels.
For the medium exposure risk level category, OSHA includes:
- oil and gas drilling, servicing, production, distribution, and/or processing tasks that require frequent close contact (within 6 feet) with coworkers, contractors, customers, or the general public; and
- traveling within facilities or between facilities when workers must share vehicles.
For the first group of tasks, OSHA notes that control rooms, trailers and doghouses are frequent high-traffic areas. The Agency also includes a general note that working and living together in close quarters where social distancing is not always feasible may increase exposure risk compared to other activities in the medium exposure risk category.
For the lower (caution) exposure risk category, OSHA includes:
- oil and gas drilling, servicing, production, distribution, and/or processing tasks that do not require frequent close contact with other coworkers, contractors, customers, or the public; and
- performing duties in non-public areas of oil and gas production and/or processing facilities, away from other workers or the public.
OSHA goes on to reiterate its recommendation that employers conduct a COVID-19 hazard assessment (or job hazard analysis), stating that conducting such an assessment can help determine whether work activities require close contact between workers and other people (e.g., coworkers, supervisors, or others at the job site). Consistent with previous guidance, OSHA advises that, when a hazard assessment identifies activities with higher exposure risks, and those activities are not essential, employers should consider delaying them until they can be performed safely (e.g., when appropriate infection prevention measures can be implemented or once community transmission subsides). OSHA also refers employers and workers in oil and gas, including refinery, operations to the Interim Guidance from CDC and OSHA for Manufacturing Workers and Employers, which it states applies generally to all types of manufacturing operations, of which some operations in the oil and gas industry, are a part.
So far as precautions, OSHA again refers employers to its hierarchy of controls to prevent exposure. Starting at the top of the hierarchy with engineering controls and ending with PPE at the bottom, OSHA sets forth the various measures employers in oil and gas can take to protect workers. These include for example:
- Configuring communal work environments (such as control rooms, jobsite trailers and/or doghouses) so that workers are spaced at least six feet apart, if possible.
- Using physical barriers, such as strip curtains, plexiglass, or other impermeable dividers or partitions, to separate workers from each other, if feasible, and where doing so does not create additional safety hazards (e.g., reduced visibility in/around work vehicles or other equipment).
- Consulting with a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning engineer to ensure adequate ventilation in work areas to help minimize workers’ potential exposures, and opening windows, when possible.
- Staggering workers’ arrival and departure times to avoid congregations of workers in parking areas, locker and shower rooms, smoking areas, control rooms and other common areas.
- Limiting the number of personnel allowed in doghouses, control rooms, and other operating areas.
- Encouraging workers to avoid carpooling to and from work and job sites, and what control measures should be used if carpooling or using company vehicles is a necessity for workers.
- Giving consideration to the use of cohorting (grouping together) workers into shifts and shared vehicle assignments.
- Establishing a system for employees to safely alert their supervisors if they are experiencing signs or symptoms of COVID-19 or if they have had recent close contact with a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 case, and to provide training on COVID-19-related safety protocols for workers.
- Encouraging hand hygiene, and the cleaning and disinfecting of shared common equipment such as communications headsets, operating terminals and other routinely touched items between shifts.
- Recommending that workers wear cloth face coverings (which are not PPE), and providing readily available clean cloth face coverings (or disposable facemask options) for workers to use when the coverings become wet, soiled, or otherwise visibly contaminated.
- Instructing workers to avoid touching their faces, including their eyes, noses, and mouths, until they have thoroughly washed their hands.
- Considering whether additional PPE is required (e.g., workers may need eye and face protection when work requires being within six feet of other workers and when other engineering and administrative controls cannot prevent worker exposure to potentially infectious respiratory droplets), though most oil and gas workers in normal work environments are unlikely to need PPE beyond what they use to protect themselves during routine job tasks.
As we previously reported, many states require these, or very similar, protective measures to be incorporated into site-specific exposure control and response plans. Indeed, even in states that do not have such requirements, development and implementation of these plans is highly encouraged as both the CDC and OSHA recommend them. As OSHA enforcement of COVID-19 issues will fall under the agency’s catch-all General Duty Clause, OSHA citations for COVID-19 exposure will rely on guidance the employer did not meet, including OSHA’s own guidance.
As a law firm focused on Workplace Safety and Labor & Employment Law, Conn Maciel Carey has been working with our clients since the beginning of this crisis to develop customized COVID-19 Exposure Control Plans. In most cases, we hold a series of conference calls with leadership, HR, safety, and operations, after which we provide a customized Exposure Control Plan that will help protect employees and customers, and also provide a line of defense against the mounting potential exposure to regulatory and tort liability. If you would like help developing such a plan, please contact any of the attorneys at Conn Maciel Carey.
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In the meantime, for additional resources on issues related to COVID-19, please visit Conn Maciel Carey’s COVID-19 Resource Page for an extensive index of frequently asked questions with our answers about HR, employment law, and OSHA regulatory related developments and guidance, as well as COVID-19 recordkeeping and reporting flow charts. Likewise, subscribe to our Employer Defense Report blog and OSHA Defense Report blog for regular updates about the Labor and Employment Law or OSHA implications of COVID-19 in the workplace. Conn Maciel Carey’s COVID-19 Task Force is monitoring federal, state, and local developments closely and is continuously updating these blogs and the FAQ page with the latest news and resources for employers.