OSHA proposal worries US drilling industry

A proposal by the US Occupational Safety & Health Administration to redefine lower back pain as a compensated injury, rather than a medical symptom, could cost the land drilling industry billions of dollars and might drive some contractors out of business, said a drilling safety officer Wednesday.

Sep 28th, 2000


A proposal by the US Occupational Safety & Health Administration to redefine lower back pain as a compensated injury, rather than a medical symptom, could cost the land drilling industry billions of dollars and might drive some contractors out of business, said a drilling safety officer Wednesday.

Although OSHA officials downplay the potential price, that proposal would prove more costly to US industry than the original legislation that created that agency in 1970, said Bill Hedrick in an early session of the 3-day annual meeting of the International Association of Drilling Contractors (IADC) in Houston. Hedrick is manager of health, safety and environmental issues for Rowan Cos. Inc. and chairman of the IADC's ergonomics subcommittee.

He denounced the proposal as a political sop to organized labor, brought forward by the Clinton administration last November after the issue had spent years on the backburner of potential OSHA actions.

Officials at OSHA estimate total industry compliance would cost a maximum $10 billion. But the real costs will be 8-15 times higher than that, Hedrick said.

Much of that expense would be in addition to state-administered workman compensation programs, he said. "As it's now written, it will drive people out of business," Hedrick told reporters.

OSHA officials claim additional worker protection is necessary because industry has not done enough to reduce musculoskeletal disorders, such as back injuries from improper lifting, or repetitive stress and strain that causes carpal tunnel syndrome.

But when the IADC filed Freedom of Information Act requests for the statistical information upon which OSHA based its conclusions, agency officials could not supply documentation, Hedrick said. The industry, however, can document a continuing downward trend in the number of drilling accidents for several years.

Opponents of the proposal say that OSHA's definition of the injury is too broad and that qualifications are too general for the "health care providers" that the agency would allow to diagnose such injuries. In one recent test of physicians who had graduated from medical schools in the last five years, Hedrick reported, 82% of the participants could not meet competency standards for diagnosing musculoskeletal disorders.

OSHA officials take the perhaps na� view that only 2% of all workers would make fraudulent claims of debilitating pains that cannot be verified by X-rays or other medical tests.

But opponents claim the proposal provides financial incentives for fraudulent claims or at least extended recoveries by requiring companies to maintain workers at 90% of their take-home pay, plus full benefits, for the length of treatment. Since many people also carry disability insurance that would make their house and car payments while they are off work, Hedrick said, "some people could actually increase their income" through such an injury claim.

The new regulation would apply to workers on land rigs, but not those on offshore rigs that are regulated by the US Coast Guard and the Minerals Management Service, under a memorandum of understanding with OSHA that has already been tested in court.

It also would not apply to laborers employed in agriculture, construction, or marine operations in shipyards, marine terminals, or longshoreman jobs.

The IADC is joining with other industries in opposing the proposal. "Dentists really hate this thing, and they have money to fight it," said Hedrick.

He said some industry groups are already preparing a legal challenge if the proposed regulation is activated.

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