Preventing Fires at Oil and Gas Facilities
Most workplaces have procedures and controls to prevent fires, but fire safety needs special attention on an oil and gas site. There is a wide variety of fire hazards on an average oil and gas site, including:
- Flammable vapors from oil, gas and their byproducts
- Naturally occurring gases (benzene, methane, hydrogen sulfide, etc.)
- Triethylene glycol
- Mineral spirits and other cleaning chemicals
- Compressors, heater treaters and other oil and gas-producing equipment
- Electrical equipment
- Hot work
- Dry grass, brush or vegetation
Because a fire can start whenever a heat source, a fuel source and oxygen are present, it is important for workers to be able to prevent fires from ever starting and to know what to do if a fire does start on their site.
Flammable materials should be stored and used in a way that prevents exposure to ignition sources. Small containers of flammable materials should only be stored in fire-proof cabinets. Approved storage cabinets for flammable liquids and other materials should be labeled “FLAMMABLE, KEEP FIRE AWAY.” Larger quantities of flammable materials should be stored in separate tanks or in a separate building on the site, away from ignition sources.
Any material that could fuel a fire, such as wood, paper or cloth, must be kept away from ignition sources and flammable materials. Workers should transport all flammable materials in approved containers, use the least flammable material for the job and only use as much as is needed to complete the job.
When dispensing flammable liquids into portable metal containers, workers should make sure the original container is grounded and the portable container is bonded to the source container. If a tank or source container has a bonding cable for portable containers, workers need to use it every time they need to fill a portable container.
Finally, any rags used to clean equipment on a rig site may be coated in flammable materials and should be disposed of in an approved, fire-proof disposal container until they can be cleaned or removed from the site.
Keeping your rig site clean and organized will not only reduce the risk of fire on your site, it will also make it easier to evacuate if a fire does occur. All walkways, exits, foot paths and vehicle paths should be kept clear of equipment and debris. Workers should remove anything that blocks exits, alarms or other emergency equipment.
All lighting and emergency equipment must be in good working order. Damaged equipment or burnt-out light bulbs should be repaired or replaced immediately.
Because oil and gas workers are exposed to so many fire hazards, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) often requires oil and gas employers to provide employees with flame-resistant clothing, or FRC.
FRC is made of materials that stop burning once the ignition source is removed and that provide temporary insulation against active flames. FRC is required during operations with a flash-fire risk, such as servicing operations, production operations or drilling in active hydrocarbon zones.
Keep in mind that “flame-resistant” is not the same as “fire-proof.” FRC will burn while an ignition source, such as an open flame, is still present. FRC comes in a variety of types and protection ratings. FRC worn to protect against flash fires is often not rated to protect against sustained hazard conditions, such as when fighting active petroleum fires. Some FRC also provides protection against electrical hazards or arc flashes. OSHA requires that all FRC meets guidelines set by the National Fire Protection Association.
Workers’ FRC should include a long-sleeved outer layer and long pants and should be the outermost layer of clothing a worker has, unless they are also wearing a chemical apron or other protective covering. Any hard hats or other headgear should also be FRC-rated. Workers should only wear natural materials such as cotton or wool under their FRC, since nontreated polyester and other synthetic materials can melt to worker’s skin in a fire.
FRC often has special requirements for maintenance, cleaning and repair, and failing to follow procedures can cause the material to lose its fire protection rating. Damaged FRC must be replaced immediately.
Emergency Action Plan
Your site should have a written emergency action plan that lists what on-site personnel should do during fires, severe weather, chemical releases and other emergencies. The plan will be unique to your work site and will include the alarms on your work site, what each alarm means, and what you and your coworkers should do when you hear each alarm. The plan should also cover evacuation procedures from all areas of the site, how to report fires or other emergencies, and which employees will have special responsibilities during an emergency.
Many sites and facilities use different audible and visual alarms to communicate different emergencies. A distinctive, three-pulse pattern, known as the Standard Audible Emergency Evacuation Signal, is commonly used during a fire or other emergency that requires evacuation. Some sites may use horns, sirens or bells. Visual alarms may also be available on your site and include flashing or steady lights.
Fire Extinguisher Use
Fire extinguishers are rated to fight different classes of fire. Most portable fire extinguishers are dry chemical extinguishers that can fight class A solid-fuel fires, class B flammable-liquid fires and class C electrical fires. Some large oil and gas equipment feature built-in fire extinguishing or fire-suppressing materials, while others have portable extinguishers stored on or in the equipment.
Only specially trained employees should attempt to fight fires, but any employee may need to be trained to use an extinguisher to clear an escape route. The steps for using a fire extinguisher can be remembered by the acronym “PASS”:
Fires on oil and gas sites can get out of hand before workers even realize it. It’s important for everyone working on the site to know what precautions to take to prevent fires, and what to do to keep themselves safe if a fire does break out.
The American Petroleum Institute (API) has standards and recommended practices that any companies in the oil and gas industry can implement and follow. SafetySkills also offers a Fire Prevention in Oil and Gas course to help workers recognize how to prevent and react to fires on their sites.