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Oil & Gas

The process of drilling, extracting, and refining oil and natural gas involves several different industrial machines and equipment, as well as some hazardous materials that can pose health and safety risks for workers. Recognizing, controlling and monitoring these hazards is vital to prevent accidents, injuries and deaths.

OSHA has a comprehensive list of warnings and standards associated with oil and gas drilling, from physical hazards such as accidents involving heavy machinery, to risks of explosions, fires, or gas leaks that can cause health problems. The CDC also issued a report last year on fatalities, injuries, and exposures associated with hazardous gases and vapors in the oil and gas extraction industry.

Gases Found in Oil & Gas

Employers have a responsibility to identify, communicate, and mitigate hazards at the oil and gas work site. The most common hazardous gases found in these work environments are:

  • O² (Oxygen)
  • H²S (Hydrogen Sulfide)
  • BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylenes)
  • Combustibles (methane, propane, butane, etc.)

O² is used to increase the amount of oxygen available for combustion or biological activity in oil and gas drilling. This increases reaction rates and allows for greater throughput in existing drilling equipment. O² is also used with fuel gases in gas welding, gas cutting, oxygen scarfing, flame cleaning, flame hardening, and flame straightening. Oxygen gases can increase the risk of fire or explosion, since it facilitates combustion with other gases. Additionally, oxygen gas can react violently when stored at high pressure, such as in a cylinder.

Hydrogen Sulfide is a component of crude oil that carries a distinctive rotten-egg odor. It is a widely recognized hazard in the oil and gas extraction industry, and continues to persist as cause of death among workers. Hydrogen sulfide is naturally present in some oil and gas deposits and may be produced as a by-product of the desulfurization process of these fuels. Exposure to high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide has been known to cause brain damage, long-term neurological conditions or death. OSHA says it takes at least 700 ppm of the gas to cause “rapid unconsciousness (and) ‘knockdown’ or immediate collapse within 1 to 2 breaths.”

BTEX compounds are often byproducts of the refining or petrochemical industry.  These compounds may present a direct risk of to health or combustion safety for workers, but often need to be monitored at the fence-line of the facility to ensure that environmental impacts are minimized.  Most oil and gas companies are well-versed in BTEX regulations, and the new sensor technology available can provide constant monitoring down to the parts per billion level.

The Risks

Combustible gases like propane and methane have a concentration limit before the air becomes combustible. This is known as the lower explosive limit (LEL), and is represented as a percentage. LEL sensors have to be calibrated and set to detect specific kinds of combustible gases, as the lowest percentage for LEL varies for each.

Hydrogen Sulfide can cause not only injury to workers, but can decrease the lifespan of equipment by creating a corrosive environment.

The down-time and possible regulatory penalties for failure to monitor or  manage the release of BTEX can significantly impact an operation.  Knowing the available methods to monitor, alert, track and report on these compounds can prevent this from happening.

Most people are familiar with hazards from combustible gases such as propane, acetylene, and natural gas, but the hazards from oxygen and oxygen-depleting gases are often overlooked. A nitrogen, carbon dioxide, or argon leak can quickly displace the oxygen in a room. If the concentration of oxygen decreases even slightly (by just 1 – 2 percent), people immediately begin to feel the effects: healthy individuals are unable to work strenuously and their coordination may be affected.