As part of its continuing series of industry-specific alerts issued in light of the pandemic, the United States Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently published new COVID-19 control and prevention guidance specific to the oil and gas industry. It should be noted that OSHA considers the guidance to be a “recommendation” that is “advisory in nature.” In other words, the guidance does not create any binding new legal obligations for employers, and instead offers advice on best practices. In its guidance, OSHA advises that employers should assess the hazards to which workers are exposed in different positions, and based upon those hazards, evaluate the risk of exposure for each subsect of workers. Second, they should establish and ensure the use of a series of controls to prevent exposure within each risk group.
First, OSHA recommends that employers conduct a hazard assessment to determine each job classification’s COVID-19 risk exposure level, based on the classification’s work tasks and job duties. The risk exposure levels delineated by OSHA are lower (caution), medium, high and very high. OSHA classifies most oil and gas work tasks as either lower or medium risk, and notes that high and very high risk levels are “not applicable for most anticipated work tasks” in the oil and gas industry.
The key factor in determining whether an oil and gas worker’s position should fall into the “lower” or “medium” hazard category is the level of their contact with others. OSHA’s guidance classifies “tasks that do not require frequent close contact with other coworkers, contractors, customers or the public” as having a lower risk of exposure. By contrast, tasks that require frequent contact within six feet of others, including work performed in control rooms, trailers and dog houses, are classified as medium risk.
Based on the hazard assessment results, OSHA next advises employers to select, implement, and ensure that workers use an appropriate hierarchy of engineering and administrative controls outlined in the guidance to prevent COVID-19 exposure.
The suggested control measures include:
- Configuring communal work environments so that workers are spaced at least six feet apart, and encouraging single-file movement in congested areas of a job site;
- Using markings and signs to remind workers of the need to maintain social distancing;
- Staggering arrival, break and departure times to avoid congregation of workers;
- Ensuring adequate ventilation in enclosed work areas to help minimize potential exposures, including opening windows and turning off fans when possible;
- Cleaning and disinfecting commonly touched surfaces and equipment;
- Limiting the number of personnel present in enclosed areas, such as control rooms and dog houses, and considering open-air or larger enclosed spaces for personnel meetings;
- Where carpooling or use of company shuttle vehicles is essential, limiting the number of workers per vehicle, opening windows when possible, encouraging workers to wear face coverings and regularly sanitizing the vehicles between use;
- Considering the use of “cohorting”—maintaining the same group of workers on each shift in order to limit exposure;
- Implementing workplace policies and programs to promote personal hygiene, including hand hygiene;
- Requiring additional personal protective equipment (PPE) (the guidance notes that most oil and gas workers are unlikely to need PPE beyond that which they use to protect themselves during routine job tasks, but discourages continued sharing of any standard PPE), and cloth face coverings; and
- Establishing plans and policies for reporting COVID-19 cases and symptoms, back-up staffing contingencies and revised sick leave.
While the guidance is not binding, the implementation of appropriate controls (including some not mentioned by OSHA’s guidance, such as screening measures and temperature checks) may limit an employer’s potential liability for injury or death resulting from a worker’s exposure to COVID-19. Accordingly, employers should be well-versed in the guidance and implement appropriate controls as detailed therein, or as they separately see fit, based upon the unique characteristics of their job sites and work functions.
About the authors: Annette Idalski chairs the Labor and Employment Practice at Chamberlain Hrdlicka. Kaitlin Lammers and Ray Abilmouna are attorneys in the practice, a group that counsels companies in the oil and gas sector. They may be reached at [email protected], kaitlin.[email protected] and [email protected].