NOBLE DRILLING CORPORATION

OSHRC Docket No. 15405

Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission

November 20, 1978

[*1]

Before CLEARY, Chairman; BARNAKO and COTTINE, Commissioners.

COUNSEL:

Baruch A. Fellner, Office of the Solicitor, USDOL

Henry C. Mahlman, Associate Regional Solicitor, U.S. Department of Labor

J. Warren Jackman, for the employer

OPINIONBY: CLEARY

OPINION:

DECISION

CLEARY, Chairman:

On October 12, 1976, Administrative Law Judge John J. Morris issued a decision finding that respondent, Noble Drilling Corporation, committed two serious violations of section 5(a)(1) (the general duty clause) and one nonserious violation of section 5(a)(2) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, 29 U.S.C. 651 et seq. [hereinafter cited as "the Act"]. Total penalties of $500 were assessed.

Following the filing of respondent's petition for discretionary review, review was directed, pursuant to section 12(j) of the Act, to determine whether the Judge's findings of facts Nos. 4, 6, and 7 were supported by the record and whether the Secretary demonstrated that a recognized hazard existed at respondent's drilling rig. We answer both questions in the affirmative.

This case arises from a September 25, 1975, OSHA safety inspection of respondent's oil well N-57, that was being drilled in the East Alakali Creek [*2] Field in Bowman County, North Dakota. As a result of the inspection, respondent was issued a citation alleging three serious violations of the Act. n1 Part (a) of the citation alleged a violation of section 5(a)(1) of the Act in that there was no manual audible emergency alarm system available on the drilling platform to warn employees in the event of an emergency. Part (b) also alleged a violation of section 5(a)(1) of the Act for failure to have an open safety valve (blowout valve) available on the drilling platform or on the job site. Part (c) of the citation alleged a violation of section 5(a)(2) of the Act for failure to comply with the standard at 29 CFR 1926.50(e) n2 in that there was no acceptable equipment available for prompt transportation of an injured employee to a doctor or a hospital, and no communication system for contacting necessary ambulance service.

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n1 Respondent was also issued a citation alleging five separate nonserious violations of the Act. Only item five, which was withdrawn by the Secretary at the hearing, was contested. Accordingly, that citation is not before us on review.

n2 1926.50 Medical services and first aid.

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(e) Proper equipment for prompt transportation of the injured person to a physician or hospital, or a communication system for contacting necessary ambulance service, shall be provided.

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It is not disputed that respondent did not provide a manual audible emergency alarm system on its rig. These alarms are used to signal employees on the rig of blowouts, n3 blowout drills, fires and other emergencies. The alarm can also be used to signal that a piece of equipment must be stopped. The compliance officer testified that the presence of such alarms on drilling rigs is the rule rather than the exception. He observed, moreover, that the safety manual for the International Association of Drilling Contractors (IADC), of which respondent is a member, assumes that emergency alarms are used. n4

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n3 A blowout is caused when the pressure of the well is greater than the atmospheric pressure and there is nothing to contain the oil. To equalize this pressure a liquid, such as mud or water, is pumped into the well. If the flow of the liquid is interrupted, a blowout can occur. At times, the interruption of the flow of liquid is detected early, thus giving warning of an impending blowout. At other times, however, the loss of fluid is sudden, and there is no warning that a blowout is about to occur.

n4 See pp. 10-11 infra.

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Respondent's division manager, Chuck Syring, testified that the well was being drilled in a low pressure oil field where there was absolutely no possibility of a blowout. Accordingly, he opined that there was no need for an emergency alarm. Respondent's division superintendent, Eddie Paul, testified that there is a general understanding in the oil drilling industry that when the uppermost part of the drilling string (Kelly) is raised, it is a signal that something is wrong and that all employees are to head for the rig floor. The compliance officer indicated that the alarm could be used to warn of hazards other than blowouts, but could not specify what those other hazards are.

It is also undisputed that respondent failed to have an open safety value (blowout valve) available on the jobsite. The blowout valve can prevent a blowout when there is adequate warning, and can stop a blowout that has already occurred. In any event, the valve represents the first immediate step toward controlling the spread of oil and combustible gas. During installation, it is kept in an open position, lest the pressure [*5] of the eruption prevent installation. After installation, the valve is closed, capping the blowout.

The IADC manual, at page 91, states that:

An open safety valve that will fit any drill pipe in the string should be on hand.

As with the emergency alarm system, respondent defended on the basis that the East Alakali field was a low pressure field where there was no possibility of a blowout. Division manager Syring testified that blowouts occur only in areas where the pressures are twice those existing at East Alakali. Moreover, Syring stated that even in high pressure areas, there is no risk of a blowout until the oil formation is penetrated.

In further support of its contention that there was no risk or a blowout, respondent established that it had safety drilled 60 wells in Bowman County. Moreover, Syring testified that there had never been a blowout in any Bowman County oil field, and that blowout valves are provided as a usual practice only when drilling in high pressure areas.

Regarding respondent's failure to provide adequate emergency transportation, the evidence established that the oil well was located 11 miles from the nearest medical facility in Bowman, North Dakota. [*6] The compliance officer observed that the worksite was not equipped with any communications device capable of summoning an ambulance, and that there was no means of transporting an injured employee in a prone position. Although there were several automobiles at the worksite, the compliance officer opined that they were not a satisfactory method of transportation since an injured employee would have to be moved in a sitting rather than a prone position. According to the compliance officer, employees who have received internal injuries, back injuries, and who are in shock must be transported in a prone position. The failure to transport an employee who, for example, is in shock can result in deeper shock and possibly death. Division manager Syring testified that respondent never experienced any problems created by transporting injured workers by car.

Respondent's primary witness regarding this alleged violation was IADC safety director Bill Hine. Hine, who is a first aid instructor, and who helped compile that part of the IADC safety manual on first aid, testified that figures compiled by the IADC indicate that between 1973 and 1976, only one injury in the Rocky Mountain area [*7] required transportation in a completely prone position. He stated that a passenger car can be converted to enable it to transport a party in a prone position by knocking out the back seat and removing the partition to the trunk. In his opinion, if a person with a fractured back or neck is properly immobilized the time needed to get to a medical facility is not crucial. Moreover, he stated that a person in shock with no head injury should be laid back with the feet raised. According to Hine, it is sufficient to lay the injured person in the back seat. No additional benefit is to be gained, he stated, by placing an injured person prone in the back of a station wagon as opposed to a car.

Judge Morris affirmed both alleged violations of section 5(a)(1) as serious, and affirmed the alleged failure to comply with 1926.50(e) as nonserious. A total penalty of $500 was assessed for the section 5(a)(1) violations, and no penalty was assessed for the failure to comply with 1926.50(e).

The Judge found that respondent's contention that the failure to provide a blowout valve was not hazardous because of the low pressure of the field was refuted by the industry safety manual which did [*8] not differentiate between high and low pressure fields in urging that a blowout valve be provided. Aside from the field pressure argument, the Judge noted that a blowout could occur if an interruption occurs in the movement of drilling fluid to the well. Therefore, he found respondent's failure to provide a blowout valve to be a recognized hazard. Applying the same rationale, the Judge observed that the industry recognized the hazards involved in failing to provide a manual alarm system. Accordingly, both items were affirmed.

Judge Morris rejected respondent's assertion that 1926.50(e) is impermissibly vague. The industry manual, he noted, suggests that a severely injured worker should "always be transported lying down. It is much better to use a flat bed truck than to jackknife the person into a passenger car." Thus, he found the standard sufficiently specific under the circumstances to have indicated to respondent that the mere provision of passenger cars for the transportation of injured workers was not sufficient.

Regarding the section 5(a)(1) citation, respondent takes specific exception to the Judge's findings of fact No. 4 ("Blowouts, fires, and explosions could occur [*9] at this rig") and No. 6 ("The industry safety manual recommends audible alarms and available open safety valves at the rig.")

Respondent stresses that the compliance officer had minimal experience in the oil drilling industry and that in issuing the citation, he did not consider the fact that the rig was drilling in a low pressure field where there was no possibility of a blowout. Respondent admits that the IADC safety manual does not distinguish between high and low pressure fields in its section on blowout valves. It asserts, however, that the manual is to be read by experienced drillers who know that it applies only to high pressure areas or wildcat wells. n5 Respondent also points out that a blowout could not have occurred because the well had not yet reached the oil bearing formation. Accordingly, respondent urges us to conclude that its failure to provide a blowout valve and manual safety alarm did not constitute a violation of section 5(a)(1) of the Act.

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n5 A wildcat well is a well drilled in an area of unknown geologic structure.

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The record clearly establishes that both respondent and the oil drilling industry, as a whole, recognize blowouts to be a hazard. In its brief on review, for example, respondent states:

Occasionally, today, in spite of all scientific advances and conscientious efforts, wells will blowout and cause explosions, fires, or oversprays which are often very destructive and difficult to succumb.

Respondent contends, however, that it was not under an obligation to install a manual alarm n6 and maintain a blowout valve because there was no possibility of a blowout at the drill site due to the depth of the hole and the low pressure to be found in the hydrocarbon bearing formation. We do not agree.

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n6 The Secretary indicates that emergency alarms may be necessary for hazards caused by conditions other than blowouts. Because the recognized hazard alleged was that of blowouts, however, it is unnecessary for us to determine if alarms would be required if a blowout were impossible.

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As Judge Morris [*11] noted, Division Manager Syring testified that respondent circulates salt water into its wells in Bowman County to contain the oil, even though lighter fresh water would suffice because of the low pressure. Syring further testified that salt water rather than fresh water is used because it:

gives us a better hold condition and so actually we have got a two to one safety factor on blow-outs. (Emphasis added.)

This testimony is inconsistent with Syring's later statement that there was no chance of a blowout because of the low pressures, and supports the Judge's conclusion that an interruption in the drilling fluid could have resulted in a blowout. We also note that respondent provided blowout protection on the annular n7 area of the rig thus indicating that respondent was aware that there was at least a minimal chance of a blowout. n8

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n7 The annular area of a drilling rig is that area between the drill casing and the drill bit.

n8 Respondent's contention that the citation should be vacated on the grounds that there was no possibility of a blowout since the rig had not reached the oil formation, is not persuasive. First, we note that there is no evidence of record establishing that the rig had not reached the oil bearing formation at the time of the inspection. Second, division manager Syring indicated at the hearing that respondent did not provide blowout valves or manual alarms when drilling in low pressure areas. Clearly then, assuming it had not reached the formation, respondent had no intention of installing the safety equipment at well N-57 after reaching the oil formation.

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Respondent's evidence which establishes that there had never been a blowout in any Bowman County oil field does not mandate a different conclusion. One of the purposes of the Act is to prevent the first accident. Lee Way Motor Freight, Inc. v. Secretary of Labor, 511 F.2d 864, 870 (10th Cir. 1975). Even though the chance of a blowout was small, the fact remains that there was a possibility that one would occur. Indeed, respondent use of salt water rather than fresh water in the oil field and its provision of blowout protection on the annular area of the rig indicate that it foresaw the possibility of a blowout. Therefore, under section 5(a)(1) of the Act, respondent was under the obligation to take whatever feasible steps existed to eliminate or reduce the hazards associated with blowouts.

The evidence establishes that the provision of a blowout valve and manual emergency alarm were feasible steps in reducing the hazard. The IADC safety manual urges drillers to keep blowout valves on hand. Syring testified that respondent provides such valves as usual practice when drilling in high pressure [*13] areas. Accordingly, we find that the provision of a blowout valve, which constitutes an effective first step in preventing a blowout or containing leaking oil and gas from a blow oil well, was a feasible means of abating the hazards associated with blowouts.

Similarly, we find that a manual emergency alarm system constituted a feasible means of warning employees on the rig of an impending blowout, thereby further reducing the hazards to employees from blowouts. The compliance officer, who, at the time of the hearing, had inspected between 30-40 drilling rigs, testified that the presence of such alarm systems was the rule rather than the exception. Moreover, the IADC safety manual assumes that such emergency alarms are used. At page 3 of the manual it is stated:

A horn or whistle can be used effectively as an emergency alarm signal. A blowout is usually signaled by several short blasts. A fire is usually signaled by several long blasts.

And at p. 91 the manual states:

Each crew should conduct blowout drills at least once a week. The rig horn should be used in each drill.

We find that respondent's practice of raising the Kelly as a signal to its employees that something [*14] is wrong, was not a sufficient substitute for a manual alarm. Respondent's drilling superintendent and assistant manager, Eddie Paul, testified that besides warning of imminent danger, the raising of the Kelly could also signify such relatively mundane procedures as changing drill bits. Thus, raising the Kelly does not necessarily evince a life threatening emergency, and would not serve to alert employees in the same manner or degree as an audible alarm.

Respondent, also takes exception to the Judge's finding of fact No. 7 which stated that "the worksite did not have equipment to transport an injured worker to a hospital in a prone position." We find that the Judge's finding is supported by the evidence and that respondent failed to comply with 1926.50(e).

Respondent asserts that the evidence establishes that ambulance service, being only 10 minutes away, was reasonably available, and that its practice of transporting injured workers in passenger cars was sufficient to fulfill the mandate of the standard.

Regarding the assertion that an ambulance was only 10 minutes away from the drill site, we note that the compliance officer gave unrebutted testimony that there was no means [*15] available on the site for summoning an ambulance. The standard requires employers to either have a method of calling an ambulance, or provide proper equipment for the prompt transportation of injured workers. Having failed to provide the former, the issue is whether respondent's use of passenger cars to transport the injured constitutes "proper equipment" within the meaning of the standard. We find it does not.

The evidence establishes that there are several types of injuries such as broken backs, necks, and injuries resulting in shock that require transportation in the prone position. In its brief before the Judge, respondent admitted that a 6 foot man could not lie completely flat in the back seat of a car. Moreover, to place an injured worker in a car would entail considerable bending and jackknifing of the body. The IADC manual, at page 26, states that:

When transporting an injured person by road vehicle other than ambulance, it is much better to use a flat bed truck than to jackknife the person into a passenger car.

This is especially crucial in certain neck and back injuries where, as the evidence indicates, immobilization of the body is required. Respondent argues, [*16] however, that these deficiencies could be overcome by knocking out the partition between the back seat and the trunk and placing the person into the car through the trunk. We find this method to be deficient. Converting the car as suggested by respondent would be time consuming. On the other hand, the IADC manual, at page 22, states that medical help should be obtained "as soon as possible." n9

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n9 We note the testimony of Bill Hine that if properly immobilized the time needed to get a worker with a fractured back or neck to a hospital is not crucial. We find the statement to lack credibility. First, the testimony is directly contrary to the IADC manual, which Hine helped compile, and which stresses the need to get prompt medical attention. Second, it is common knowledge that in serious injuries, the time needed to get to a medical facility can often spell the difference between life and death.

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The evidence establishes that most injured employees do not need to be transported to a medical facility in a prone [*17] position. The evidence also establishes, however, that occasions can arise where injuries are of such a nature as to require immobilization and transportation in a prone position. That the number of such injuries are few goes to the gravity of the violation, but does not affect respondent's obligation to ensure that adequate transportation is provided. See Signode Corp., 76 OSAHRC 43/A2, 4 BNA OSHC 1078, 1975-76 CCH OSHD para. 20,575 (No. 3527, 1976), petition for review denied, No. 76-1456, 7th Cir., February 9, 1977.

Regarding the penalty, we note that the Judge's assessment of $500 for the two section 5(a)(1) violations was based on the stipulation of the parties that if a violation were found a $500 penalty would be appropriate, and on his independent determination that the nature of the violation warranted such a penalty. The Judge's decision not to assess a penalty for the failure to comply with 1926.50(e) was based on his finding that the violation was one of low gravity. We find no reason to disturb either assessment.

Accordingly, the Judge's decision is AFFIRMED.