Oil Rig Dangers: Work-Related Injuries and Safety

Despite a rise in alternative energy sources, global demand for oil continues to increase. In the United States alone, over 7.2 billion barrels of petroleum products were consumed in 2016—an average of almost 20 million barrels a day. Almost 40 percent of employers in the oil and gas industry plan to increase their workforce by at least 5 percent over the next year to expand production.

Extracting oil is a dangerous business, whether it’s done onshore or offshore. Oil rig dangers are considerable, because this line of work deals with intense pressure, highly combustible material and heavy equipment.

According to data compiled by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a worker in the oil and gas industry is six times more likely to die on the job than the average American worker.

When workers are offshore, help is not close by. A fire or another accident can quickly escalate into a tragedy. Thinking back to the almost 200 workers who perished in explosions on the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 and the Piper Alpha in the North Sea in 1988 remind us how perilous this line of work can be.

When disaster strikes on an oil rig, what are the top reasons people are injured? Could safety measures have reduced the number of victims of these accidents? Let’s take a look at the numbers, some of the more common reasons oilfield workers are at risk and measures companies can take to protect their employees.

How Many Oil and Gas Employees Are Hurt or Injured On the Job?

Oilfield work often appears on lists of the most dangerous professions. As the oil and gas industry boomed from an average of 800 active drilling rigs in the 1990s to approximately 1,300 in the time period from 2003 to 2006, the worker fatality rate increased, with over 400 workers losing their lives on the job. The Centers for Disease Control found that the annual fatality rate climbed to 30.5 per 100,000 workers over those four years alone.

The three states with the most oilfield deaths in 2008 were Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. From 2004 until 2008, the number of fatalities while working in the oil and gas industry increased by 91 percent in Oklahoma, 21 percent in Texas and 30 percent in Louisiana.

In addition to an alarming high worker death rate in the oil and gas industry, life-altering injuries can also occur. In 2016 alone, at least 20 workers a month were hospitalized or lost a body part while on the job. Oilfield workers can also experience major burns and fractures, among other injuries. The Labor Department speculates that employers under report injuries by as much as 60 percent. The former head of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) pointed out that a culture of not reporting these incidents in the oil and gas industry is common, so even more workers are probably hurt or injured on the job.

Why Are Oilfields So Dangerous?

Why are so many oil and gas workers injured or killed while on the job? What is it, exactly, that makes working in this industry so dangerous? Most work-related injuries and fatalities are associated with working in an extremely high-pressure environment, with workers spending long periods of time away from home logging long hours in a physically-demanding environment. Part of the pressure comes with the cost of doing business, where just a one-minute delay can cost a company hundreds of dollars.

As a result, we see more human error in this type of work, which can lead to equipment misuse and procedures being implemented unevenly. Ultimately, these errors can jeopardize the safety of the job site. A few reasons oilfield work is particularly risky is that this line of work involves heights, heavy equipment, challenges getting to and from job sites, and dangerous materials.

Fall Hazards On Oilfields

Working in an oilfield can be terrifying if you have a fear of heights. A misstep on an offshore outboard walkway at night means almost certain death if a worker falls. Slipping while moving materials on an elevated platform can result in life-changing oil rig injuries. From 2003 to 2013, falls increased 2 percent annually in the oil and gas industry. The CDC identified 63 fatal falls while analyzing OSHA data, which represents 15 percent of all fatal events during that same time period. Fifty-two percent of workers fell from a height of more than 30 feet, resulting in catastrophic injuries. Thirty-five percent of falls were from the derrick board, which is the elevated work platform on an oil rig.

The same report showed that most of the fatalities happened when the rigs were being assembled or disassembled at the well site or when a drill pipe was inserted or removed from the wellbore. Derrickmen were found to be the most susceptible to falls when they handle pipe from the derrick board.

Dangers Associated With Heavy Equipment

When you work several stories off the ground, as is typical on an oil derrick, dropped equipment can become missiles that can easily maim workers or cause serious injury. A common hazard that results in both construction site injuries and oilfield injuries, falling equipment caused 22 percent of all oilfield worker fatalities in the time period from 2003 to 2006. For onsite fatalities, the leading cause of death was being struck by, crushed, or caught in equipment.

Spinning machinery and support equipment, including cranes and forklifts, are frequently in motion on a job site in the oil and gas industry. These conditions put workers at an increased risk for injury. In addition, the noise level of the working environment makes communication difficult. Six percent of oil worker deaths were attributed to workers being crushed by moving equipment.

Risks Getting To and From Job Sites

Workers typically work 8 to 12 hour days at a stretch of 7 to 14 days at a time, which leads to worker fatigue. This demanding schedule not only slows reaction time while on the job but also when the workday ends. Workers may leave a job site and have a long drive to where they will be staying. Transportation accidents are the leading cause of death among oil and gas extraction workers.

During the oil boom, State Highway 72 in South Texas became one of the state’s deadliest roads. The highway connects the oil towns of Kenedy and Tilden to the Three Rivers Valero refinery. In the first six months of 2014 alone, oil and gas companies filed 24 claims for fatal auto accidents.

In a report from Houston Public Media, Texas Mutual Insurance Vice President for Safety Services Woody Hill said, “We see a high incidence of motor vehicle operators who’ve worked fourteen-hour shifts, driving down the road and falling asleep at the wheel.”

Offshore workers travel to and from rigs on helicopters, which can also pose health and safety risks. In 2016, all 13 passengers died after a helicopter crashed off Norway’s coast. In 2015, a helicopter returning from an oil rig off the coast of Nigeria crashed, claiming the lives of four oil industry workers. Tragically, 45 offshore oil workers lost their lives in 1986 while traveling on a Chinook helicopter to a platform stationed in the North Sea.

Perils Linked To Oilfield materials

It goes without saying that petroleum is highly combustible, as are some of the chemicals that are used in onshore drilling, such as hydrogen sulfide. A well can explode if too much pressure is allowed to build up inside. The CDC reported that 7 percent of oil and gas extraction worker fatalities from 2003 to 2006 were from fires and an additional 9 percent were from explosions. Electrocution claimed the lives of an additional 5 percent of oilfield workers.

Improved Workplace Safety Can Save Lives

Too many oil and gas workers are losing their lives or dealing with life-changing injuries as a result of a workplace accident. Despite the dangers associated with oil and gas extraction, injuries and deaths in the industry can be reduced with improved safety measures, implementation, training, and sharing of best practices.

Improved Safety Measures

Tighter safety requirements, tougher inspections, and more oversight of oil operations can help spot potential problems and curb both the number and severity of oilfield accidents. As new technologies become available, more oil rig tasks are being automated, which can move workers away from dangerous equipment and into safer monitoring roles.

Employers can take steps to improve safety by making sure all workers have proper protective equipment and receive adequate training. Companies can go beyond regulations to keep pathways on an oil rig clear of debris to prevent workers from tripping or being struck by an object. Monitoring equipment placed inside of vehicles can give companies more insight about how to make improvements to existing vehicle safety programs.

Better Implementation of Existing Regulations

In many cases, safety measures do exist, but are not followed, or are not followed correctly. In response to the number of industry-related fatal injuries in 2004, the NIOSH created an Oil and Gas Safety and Health program. The agency concluded in a March 2016 report that while the oil and gas extraction industry made progress in reducing the fatality rate, the risk of workers dying is still significantly higher than most other professions. The group recommended that the industry continue efforts to reduce hazards and target high-risk operations and groups of workers within the industry.

The CDC found that fall protection was regulated in 86 percent of fatal falls during this time. Unfortunately, either protection “was not used, was used improperly, or the equipment failed.” In 24 of those 63 fatal falls, 15 workers were wearing their safety harness but fell anyway because their harnesses weren’t attached to an anchor point. A verbal check between the driller and the derrickman before drilling operations began might have saved their lives. Taking this step could have reminded the derrickman to connect to the self-retracting lifeline and a restraint system on the derrick board.

Improved Training and Hiring Practices

When it comes to offshore drilling and the desire to dig deeper, inexperience can play a role. LiveScience reported that in the Deepwater Horizon incident, “BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles acknowledged that many of his company’s efforts to stop the oil leak failed because they had never had to plug a well at such depths and were therefore unprepared for the conditions that foiled their attempts, including ice formation inside of the original containment dome due to freezing deep water temperatures.” Indeed, the rig broke new ground and was the world’s deepest offshore well before it exploded and sank.

Oilfields are in a state of near-constant motion, with workers coming on and off the job frequently. Employers can make sure that when projects shift, signage is placed in correct areas and that new workers are onboarded with everything they need to know about safety hazards and procedures.

Slack Davis Sanger Has a Proven Record In Oilfield Accident Cases

If you were injured or a loved one was killed while working on an oil rig, you may feel helpless to stand up to a powerful multinational corporation. The lawyers at Slack Davis Sanger have decades of experience seeking just compensation for workers and their families whose lives were forever changed as a result of an oilfield accident. Our attorneys will combine a deep understanding of the complex set of laws and regulations in the oil and gas industry with compassion for your situation to secure a favorable settlement in your personal injury or wrongful death case.