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GUEST COLUMN: Colorado energy industry prioritizes safety

By: Casey Hodges
February 10, 2017 Updated: February 16, 2017 at 7:57 am
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This year, oil and gas giant British Petroleum will relocate its headquarters to Denver. The move will boost Colorado's economy and generate hundreds of new jobs - and could prompt other energy companies to join BP in Colorado.

But not everyone is celebrating. Many environmentalists are working to convince the public that energy jobs are uniquely dangerous. They're wrong. In fact, oil and gas development is one of the nation's safest industries.

Since the last decade's shale revolution took hold, the energy sector has taken off. From 2003 to 2013, the energy sector's workforce doubled - and the number of U.S. drilling rigs jumped 71 percent. In Colorado, the oil and gas sector now supports more than 200,000 jobs.

Counterintuitively, as the industry has grown, the rate of serious workplace injuries and fatalities has fallen.

Today, the incidence of workplace injuries for energy employees - 1.3 cases per 100 workers - is well below the national rate. In fact, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, oil and gas workers are less likely to suffer injuries than construction workers, farmers, fishermen, bartenders, and even taxi drivers.

Such facts are a tribute to the energy industry's commitment to safety.

It takes hours of training and safety education for a worker to even step onto an active worksite. Supervisors hold regular meetings to discuss the hazards of the work and necessary precautions, from proper lifting techniques to protocol training. Steel-toed boots and hard hats are mandatory near or close to all oil rigs. And, at some companies, if an employee spots a dangerous situation or a safety violation, he can issue a "stop work" order, shutting down operations until the problem is addressed.

While every company has its own best practices to manage worker safety, the oil and gas industry, in partnership with OSHA, actively collects and monitors safety data for all aspects of exploration and production.

Of course, energy sector workers are human, so mistakes will occasionally happen. That's why oil and gas companies are constantly innovating to boost safety worker and minimize possible dangers. More and more systems and processes are automated to save workers from hands-on work.

Consider measurement engineering, the field in which I work. Engineers are tasked with a variety of crucial tasks in the energy development process - including selecting proper flow meters, ensuring they are properly calibrated, and installing them correctly. One of their most important jobs is to evaluate the quantity and quality of oil accurately.

In the past, workers had no choice but to hoist themselves on top of tanks to measure oil. They'd drop a device that was barely more sophisticated than a tape measure into oil tanks and run quality control by personally collecting samples. Workers worried about falling, slipping, and inhaling dangerous fumes daily.

But thanks to new technology, facilitated in part by my company CEESI, workers can measure oil from the ground - without ever opening a tank. By employing both complex radar gauges and modern devices that float atop oil, thousands of workers have forgone risky trips to the tops of tanks.

The oil and gas industry is spurring wide adoption of these safer methods. Last year - absent prompting from federal regulators or outside groups - the American Petroleum Institute released instructions for measuring oil without having workers open tank hatches.

Other sectors of the industry are similarly committed to safety. Oil and gas companies are swapping corrosion-prone and flammable materials for more resistant rubber parts and outfitting rigs with heated valves so workers no longer have to use a torch to open a cold valve.

A recent study by NIOSH's Western States Office found that the injury rate for workers on rigs with new technologies is 33 percent lower than on older rigs. With more advanced rigs, workers can avoid having to miss work or lose time on projects due to injury.

At my company, our goal is zero - zero injuries, zero near-misses, and zero fatalities. I know my colleagues in the industry feel the same way. Despite the claims of those who want to stifle energy development in Colorado, the oil and gas industry's commitment to safety is something everyone here can be proud of.

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Casey Hodges, P.E., is the director of CEESI Measurement Solutions and a flow measurement Instructor.

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