Regulatory Approach to Controlling Hazards in the Energy Sector

8th US/EU Joint Conference on Occupational Safety and Health
Ft. Worth, TX
September 16-19, 2015


This topic refers to the challenges of and alternatives to the current regulatory framework to effectively address occupational safety and health hazards in the energy sector. Segments of this sector are experiencing rapid growth and the introduction of new technologies that are enabling the US and EU to harness new energy resources (e.g., wind, solar) and extract resources from previously untapped reservoirs (e.g., shale, tar sands). In addressing this topic, the conference will use the oil and gas segment as a case study and a focal point for discussion. However, the information exchange and discussion outcomes will provide strategies and concepts that apply to other segments of the energy sector. In fact, lessons from the energy industry should be relevant to any sector experiencing rapid growth, technological change, and any sector with the potential for catastrophic accidents.

Fueled by new technologies and increasing demand, the oil and gas industry has experienced a period of rapid growth and technological innovation. This can lead to increases in occupational injuries, illnesses and fatalities.1 The combination of rapid growth and technological advancements introduces challenges for protecting workers that may include:

  • Unknown or unanticipated hazards and exposures, as well as hazards that may not be satisfactorily addressed by existing standards,
  • Increased exposure to incidents that are infrequent but catastrophic in nature (i.e., low probability/high consequence),
  • Exposure of new groups of workers to hazards that may be well characterized in other workplaces, but relatively unknown to them (e.g., silica with the introduction of hydraulic fracturing), and
  • An influx of new workers, with little previous experience or training, who are now working in high-hazard operations.

Knowing that injuries to workers can dramatically affect their ability to continue gainful employment and have other severe consequences on the workers and their families, regulatory agencies must continually evaluate new and innovative approaches to the regulatory process to effectively address rapidly emerging technologies.

The challenge is to devise alternatives or additions to the current regulatory framework that are more performance-based, systems-oriented, and flexible enough to keep up with changing technology.  One possibility is the safety-case model, which requires a regulated enterprise to demonstrate to the regulator that it has considered and addressed all applicable safety issues, and has a system in place that will continue to do so.  Voluntary efforts are also important, such as OSHA Alliances and other cooperative programs in the US onshore oil and gas extraction industry and Step Change in Safety in the UK.


To evaluate a selection of sub-sectors within the broad Energy industry to identify and discuss common issues that cause worker injuries and illnesses, as well as cause catastrophic events, in order to identify methods and processes which may be evaluated for furtherance of effective management and control of safety and health hazards and risks. The focus should be on oil and gas exploration, extraction and downstream processing, and 'emerging' energy industries such as fracking and renewable energy technologies. However, the issues raised in the subtopics below are not unique to oil and gas, or even to energy production in general. They are applicable to any industry where technological change threatens to outstrip the systems protecting workers and the public.


  1. What is the current level of safety and health performance in these sectors?
  2. How are these sectors regulated in policy, legal and practical terms?  What are considered to be the strengths and weaknesses of the various systems and how are the weaknesses mitigated?
  3. Does current regulatory framework (legislation, regulation and industry practice) effectively address the hazards associated with emerging production methods such as fracking and renewable energy technologies?
    • How do regulatory agencies effectively detect and respond to industry trends that could impact worker safety and health?
    • How can workers be best protected when technology advances ahead of the regulatory environment or in the absence of appropriate regulations?
  4. How do these industries assure themselves and regulators that they have effective control mechanisms in place - and that they are working as intended?
  5. What is the balance and relationship between “traditional” safety and process safety in these sectors? Should other frameworks, such as the safety case approach be considered?
  6. What models, either regulatory or voluntary, best address low probability, high consequence events, including related factors that may go beyond current regulations (e.g., human factors, such as fatigue and staffing).
  7. How can we best respond to the challenges presented by:
    • Ageing infrastructure;
    • Market volatility in oil and gas prices;
    • The speed of technological innovation – particularly in the offshore sector;
    • Increasing trends towards fragmentation of the supply chain including the implications for workforce engagement.
  8. How well-placed are we to meet competency requirements in these sectors – e.g. ageing workforces, on the one hand, and a skills gap around the rapid expansion of the new energy economy, on the other? 
  9. How can regulatory agencies coordinate regulatory and other initiatives to address cross-cutting issues (e.g., increased traffic/rail incidents, re-opening sand mines, and public-health impacts) that may arise as a result of rapid growth or technological advancements?

1 Occupational Fatalities During the Oil and GasBoom – United States, 2003-2013, CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, May 29, 2015/ 64(20);551-554.