Here's a compliance primer for meeting DOT's new OQ rule

April 19, 1999
This summer, or possibly next month, the U.S. Department of Transportation's (DOT) Research & Special Programs Administration (RSPA) will issue its Operator Qualification (OQ) Rule that will apply to all operators of natural gas and hazardous liquids pipelines in the U.S. The rule will cause major changes in how pipeline operators train and test employees and contractors who perform operations and maintenance. Industry estimates compliance costs will exceed $200 million/year.
DOT's new Operator Qualification Rule specifies a four-part test for determining if an activity is covered.
This summer, or possibly next month, the U.S. Department of Transportation's (DOT) Research & Special Programs Administration (RSPA) will issue its Operator Qualification (OQ) Rule that will apply to all operators of natural gas and hazardous liquids pipelines in the U.S.

The rule will cause major changes in how pipeline operators train and test employees and contractors who perform operations and maintenance. Industry estimates compliance costs will exceed $200 million/year.

Assuming the May 1 effective date targeted by the preliminary rule, each operator must develop by Jan. 1, 2000, a written OQ plan that describes how it will identify covered tasks, evaluate someone's qualifications to perform those tasks, communicate changes affecting a task, and re-evaluate qualifications under certain circumstances.

By July 1, 2002 (again assuming a May 1, 1999, issue date), no person may perform a covered task on a pipeline unless he or she has been evaluated according to the operator's OQ plan and determined to be qualified. The rule will require significant commitment of resources to develop a compliance program within these deadlines.

Rule history

In the 1980s, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded that several pipeline accidents were either the result of or made worse by human error. NTSB recommended that RSPA impose regulations to ensure that pipeline personnel are qualified for safety-sensitive jobs.

In the Pipeline Safety Act of 1988, Congress responded to NTSB's recommendation by authorizing RSPA to regulate the qualification of pipeline workers. In the Pipeline Safety Act of 1992, Congress made such rules mandatory.

By law, RSPA's rules must require that "all individuals who operate and maintain pipeline facilities shall be qualified to operate and maintain the pipeline facilities.

"The qualifications applicable to an individual who operates and maintains a pipeline facility shall address the ability to recognize and react appropriately to abnormal operating conditions that may indicate a dangerous situation or a condition exceeding design limits. The operator of a pipeline facility shall ensure that employees who operate and maintain the facility are qualified to operate and maintain the pipeline facilities."1 The key components of the law apply to all individuals, both employees and contractors, performing certain operations and maintenance activities, and include evaluating their abilities to perform routine aspects of the activity and to recognize and react to abnormal operating conditions.

The Oct. 27, 1998, proposed rule addresses these minimum requirements.

In 1994, RSPA proposed an operator qualification rule but withdrew it after widespread criticism that the rule was overly prescriptive. In 1997, RSPA began a negotiated rulemaking process in which representatives from interested parties were invited to participate on a committee to craft a rule.

Members included industry associations, state and federal regulators, labor unions, and other pipeline safety experts. The rule proposed by RSPA was the product of more than 130 hr of negotiations during 1997 and early 1998.

The rule specifies seven minimum requirements for each operator's written OQ plan.

Identify covered tasks

The plan must state how the operator will identify those activities performed on its pipeline facilities that meet the definition of a "covered task."

The rule specifies a four-part test for making this determination.

To be covered, a task must:

  1. Be performed on a pipeline facility.
  2. Be an operations or maintenance task.
  3. Be regulated under 49 CFR Part 192 or 195; (CFR = U.S. Code of Federal Regulations).
  4. Affect the operation or integrity of the pipeline.
Any activity that fails one or more of these tests is not covered, and the operator has no further responsibilities for that activity under this rule. Fig. 1 [83,899 bytes] illustrates the decision-making process for identifying covered tasks.

Some very safety-sensitive activities fail one or more tests. Investigating a carbon monoxide alarm in a distribution company customer's home, for example, fails all but the second test, yet it is hard to imagine an activity with more safety significance.

It is important to remember, however, that these are minimum standards and companies can and will establish qualification programs for safety-significant but noncovered tasks.

The importance of whether a task is covered or noncovered is that regulators can enforce qualification in covered tasks under this rule but not qualification in noncovered tasks.

Evaluating qualifications

Each operator must specify how the company will evaluate the ability of employees and contractors to perform covered tasks. Any evaluation method can be used if it can be documented and defended as a reasonable measure of the ability to perform routine aspects of a task and recognize and react to abnormal operating condition.

For most covered tasks, evaluation will consist of several evaluations to assess all required knowledge, skills, and abnormal operating conditions.

For example, evaluation for the task of leak surveying gas pipelines might include a test on properties of gas, sources of ignition, operating knowledge of a combustible gas indicator, leak classification, leak-surveying techniques, and recognizing and reacting to blowing gas or a fire on a pipeline facility (the two abnormal operating conditions identified for this task), plus an on-the-job observation to verify the person can apply the knowledge in the field.

Operators may use commercially available evaluation methods, use existing internal training and testing, develop new and unique evaluation criteria, or use some combination of the three. As will be discussed later, there are significant advantages to standardization.

An operator's OQ plan may allow a nonqualified person to perform covered tasks if he or she is directed and observed by someone who is qualified. For the purpose of this rule, "directed and observed" means the qualified person is literally looking over the shoulder of the nonqualified person and must be able immediately to observe and correct any errors. It does not mean directing from a remote location.

This provision allows on-the-job training or pairing a nonqualified helper with a qualifier person for tasks requiring more than one person.


The OQ plan must provide for re-evaluation of the qualifications of anyone whose performance of a covered task is implicated as a cause or contributing factor in a reportable incident on a gas pipeline or an accident on a hazardous liquid pipeline.

For Total OQ, Safety & Compliance Inc. (SCE), Springfield, Va., developed an OQ compliance and qualification system to assist accident investigators quickly to sort through persons and their qualifications and record each step of the investigation.

The OQ plan must address how the operator will re-evaluate qualifications of persons management has reason to believe are no longer qualified. Reasons could include a supervisor observing a person performing a task incorrectly or the loss of motor skills due to an accident or illness.

SCE's OQ plan and recordkeeping system utilizes the same qualification review and process recording system as described previously for post-accident review.

Communication of changes

The OQ plan must address how changes to regulations, procedures, equipment, technology, etc. that affect one or more covered tasks will be communicated to persons qualified in that task. SCE's written plan has three levels of action, depending on the significance of the change:
  • If a change is determined to be insignificant, no further action is required, but the rationale for this decision is recorded.
  • If the change is significant but does not affect the underlying knowledge and skills for which the person has already been evaluated, the change is communicated to all persons qualified in the task and this action is recorded.
  • If a change is so significant that it changes the knowledge and/or skills needed for the task, SCE's written plan calls for re-evaluation of each person's qualifications before the change can be put into practice in the field.
The OQ rule will, therefore, add one more level of complexity to company decisions for adopting new technology or changing procedures, namely training and evaluating persons on the new equipment of procedures. This is, however, something that most operators already recognize as a necessary step in this process.

Establishing re-evaluation intervals

The last of the seven minimum requirements for an OQ plan is determining how often a person's qualifications need to be re-evaluated.

The rule offers the possibility that for some tasks, qualifications may never need to be re-evaluated, but regulators may question any such determination in an operator's OQ plan.

In fact, regulators have the right to review and require changes in any and all aspects of the OQ plan, just as they currently can require changes in an operator's operations and maintenance manuals and other required procedures.

SCE has developed an index to provide a consistent and defensible rationale for determining re-evaluation intervals in SCE's OQ plan.

For each knowledge and skill element of each covered task, SCE has assigned numeric values to three factors affecting the need for re-evaluation:

  1. The complexity of the task
  2. The safety-sensitivity of the task
  3. The frequency at which the task is performed.
Complex, safety-sensitive, infrequently performed tasks receive a high score and therefore more frequent re-evaluation. Simple, nonsafety-sensitive, frequently performed tasks receive lengthy re-evaluation intervals.

Record keeping

There are two record-keeping requirements in the OQ rule.

First, the rule requires that at minimum each operator have a record of each evaluation including the identity (name or identification number) of the person, the covered task, the date of evaluation, and the method of evaluation.

Second, the rule contains a general duty clause that each operator maintain records proving he has followed the provision of his OQ plan. Records of each evaluation must be maintained for 5 years after it is superceded by a re-evaluation or the person stops performing the covered task (retires, dies, leaves the company, or simply no longer performs the task).

For example, assume an operator's OQ plan requires re-evaluation in leak-survey procedures every 3 years and a person has passed this evaluation on July 1, 2002, June 12, 2005, June 1, 2008, and May 13, 2011.

The July 1, 2002, evaluation must be retained until June 12, 2010 (5 years after it is superceded as the current evaluation by the June 12, 2005, evaluation; Fig. 2 [59,953 bytes]). Until June 12, 2010, regulators auditing OQ rule compliance have the right to examine the results of the evaluation of July 1, 2002. Therefore, what appears to be a 5-year retention period is, in fact, significantly longer, depending on how long a re-evaluation period the operator specifies for each evaluation.

Although it appears straightforward, the record-keeping and record-retention provisions of this rule are among its trickiest provisions. They were subject to many hours of debate at the regulation-negotiation committee meetings, little of which is reflected in the preamble to the rule.

How to comply

Perhaps the most time-consuming part of developing the written OQ plan during the first 20 months will be identifying covered tasks, assigning evaluations for each covered task, and determining which employees and contractor employees perform one or more covered tasks.

SCE has completed analyses for a number of gas-distribution companies and, in cooperation with Enbridge Technologies Inc. (ETI), Edmonton, has evaluated tasks for gas transmission and liquid pipelines as well.

Operators are free to develop their own covered task lists or use these commercially available lists. The process an individual company would follow to develop its own covered task list is similar to the process SCE and ETI followed.

To develop a covered task list, SCE and ETI first compiled a list of tasks by reviewing operating and maintenance manuals, job descriptions, and anything that describes activities performed on the pipeline. Participating in this effort were 48 companies, serving about 20% of U.S. gas consumers.

The benefit of reviewing many different companies' manuals is that while one company's manuals may overlook a task, a review of several dozen companies' manuals led to creation of a comprehensive list of nearly 300 tasks.

Then SCE and ETI applied the four-part test to each of the tasks, documenting why each passed or failed the four tests. This will be important when, 3 years from now, regulators begin auditing OQ plans.

With the rate of personnel change in the pipeline industry, the person defending the OQ plan in a compliance audit 3 years from now may not be the person who compiled the list today. Documentation is important.

Finally, SCE and ETI identified the evaluation methods for its OQ plan. For each of the approximately 70 covered tasks and many more safety-sensitive, noncovered tasks, SCE and ETI identified one or more evaluations that accurately measured the knowledge, skills, and abnormal operating conditions for the task.

The result was a matrix of tasks with the required tests a person must take to be qualified. Table 1 [127,324 bytes], which shows part of the tasks, is for illustration purposes only; the actual matrix exists as a relational database in SCE's resource-management system.

These steps created the default covered-task list, evaluation methods, and evaluation curriculum for each task that comes preloaded as defaults. To customize the basic plan for a particular company, SCE and ETI proceed with the following steps:

  • The names of all persons performing operating and maintenance tasks for the operator must be determined. Larger companies have these data readily available on human-resources database systems that can easily be imported.
  • Job classifications (job titles, job names) must be entered. For example, at XYZ Pipeline Co., an inspector may perform leak surveys, pipe-to-soil readings, valve inspections, regulator station inspections, and relief valve inspections, all of which are covered tasks. For each of these tasks, the company has established a curriculum of one or more evaluations that must be passed before someone can be qualified, either accepting the built-in defaults or modifying them for its own needs.

    In some cases, the same evaluation is required to be qualified for two or more tasks that an inspector performs. Obviously, passing the same evaluation for one task also counts toward the other tasks that require it, so that the overall number of evaluations is less than it appears.

  • The final step is to match employees with their job classifications. A small company with few employees may choose to skip the job classifications and assign tasks directly to individuals. Using the intermediate step of job classifications only makes sense if several individuals have the same job classification and do the same tasks, therefore requiring the same evaluations.
At the end of this process, the operator will have a list of required evaluations and re-evaluation intervals for each employee. At this point, the company is ready to start testing employees in preparation for mid-2002 when the company must have documentation that they are qualified.

Individuals who have performed covered tasks regularly before the effective date of the rule may be qualified through a work-performance history review, a review of the employee's records, rather than testing.

The review should document that the individual has regularly performed the task and has no evidence of involvement in an accident, substandard performance, or other evidence that would call to question the ability to perform this task.

SCE is alone in having developed a checklist to standardize and document work-performance history reviews.

Qualifying contractors

The previous example shows how the rule applies to company employees; how to qualify contractors is more complex.

The rule makes the operator responsible for ensuring the qualification of contractors: To work on the operator's pipeline, the contractor must be qualified according to the evaluations specified for the task in the operator's OQ plan, not the contractor's OQ plan.

In fact, under rule, there is no requirement that the contractor even have an OQ plan; only an operator needs OQ plans and only the operator's OQ plan requirements are considered in determining compliance.

There are three ways to qualify contractors:

  1. The operator could administer the evaluations from his OQ plan for contractor personnel. Many operators currently test welders and plastic pipe joiners and issue cards good only on that company's facilities. The same contractor may take virtually identical tests at each company for which he or she welds or joins plastic pipe. The OQ rule will add an order of magnitude more tasks in which the contractor must be qualified. Conceivably, a contractor could spend a significant amount of time in classrooms taking tests if every operator adopts his own unique evaluation requirement. One way or another, these costs will be born by the pipeline operators.
  2. The contractor could test his employees using the operator's specified evaluation methods. This still does not reduce the number of tests required, and many operators will be reticent to accept contractor testing.
  3. Third-party certification. An independent testing and record-keeping agency could administer the evaluations and provide records to all pipeline operators. To the extent that operators adopt uniform evaluation requirements, one evaluation could satisfy the requirements of all the pipelines that have adopted the uniform test. SCE has managed similar certification services for plastic-pipe fusion in the gas industry and is currently establishing OQ-related services as well. How an operator writes his OQ plan over the next 18-24 months, will in large part determine whether the operator can take advantage of cost-saving opportunities through third-party certification of contractors or whether the operator is saddled with high qualification costs.


  1. U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, 49 U.S.C. 60102(a).

The Author

John Erickson is president of Safety & Compliance Inc., Springfield, Va., a company he helped found in 1997. Previously, he spent more than 15 years with the American Gas Association, the last 7 as vice-president of AGA's engineering group. Erickson holds a BS in chemical engineering from Purdue University, Lafayette, Ind., and an MBA from George Washington University, Washington, D.C. He is a registered professional engineer in Virginia.

Copyright 1999 Oil & Gas Journal. All Rights Reserved.