Offshore oil rigs play an important role in the American energy production and maritime industries. They not only produce thousands of barrels of oil a day in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere, but they help the economy by creating lucrative jobs for offshore maritime workers. However, offshore oil rigs are among the country’s most dangerous workplaces and put rig workers at a high risk of injuries and death.
Clear and Present Dangers of Offshore Oil Rigs
Oil rigs are large and mechanically complex structures. Their primary function is to extract petroleum from deposits buried deep beneath the seabed. Extracting petroleum at sea is always a hazardous enterprise. All oil rigs, whether on land or sea, are hardly risk-free workplaces, but the maritime environment in which offshore rigs must operate makes them more prone to workplace injuries and deaths.
Some types of accidents, such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout and fire, are not as frequent as those that involve equipment-related injuries and falls. When they strike, though, they injure and kill many workers simultaneously.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 63 oil and gas rig workers died in industrial accidents between 2009 and 2012, many of them in offshore facilities.
The following are some of the most dangerous offshore accidents on oil rigs:
Offshore oil rigs are multi-level structures that rise many stories above the water. As a result, most workers clamber up and down ladders from one deck of the rig to another or perform their jobs near the deck rails overlooking the water. Although oil rig workers wear safety gear that includes steel-toed boots with soles designed to provide good traction, falls from higher levels to lower ones or into the water account for many accidental injuries and deaths. These accidents stem from various causes, including lack of safety training, presence of a low safety culture in some companies, and poorly maintained ladders and safety railings.
Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), offshore oil rig workers were included among the 605 workers killed in 2009 because of fall-related accidents.
Falling objects can also injure offshore oil rig workers. This is why hard hats are mandatory for all employees. Many falling object accidents occur when a worker drops a heavy tool and it hits an unsuspecting employee on the head. In many instances, the tool’s size, weight, and the height from which it is dropped can cause serious injury to the worker it strikes regardless of the presence of a hard hat.
According to BLS statistics, 263 workers in various occupations died in 2010 because of dropped tools or other fallen objects. Many of these deaths occurred because workers lost their grips on tools or left tools or heavy objects unattended in high places from which they could fall. Other fall-from-height objects that cause injuries or deaths on offshore oil rigs include sections of pipe, metal paneling, and unattached equipment parts such as batteries and saw blades.
Oil Rig Worker Fatigue
As in other maritime jobs, offshore oil workers often have long workdays. The average work day on an oil platform lasts between 8 and 12 hours, and in some rigs, they may last longer. In addition, employees often work continuously for periods that range from seven days to two weeks before temporary pauses in oil drilling operations.
Grueling operational tempos may increase oil production by thousands of barrels a day, but they often leave workers feeling fatigued. Tired workers are more likely to have impaired judgment and slower reflexes. As a result, workers who have not had enough rest do not react quickly in an emergency or cause various types of workplace accidents, including falling-object incidents or slip-trip-and-falls.
Fires and Explosions
Petroleum is flammable even in its unrefined state. In addition, oil extraction often requires the use of chemicals such as hydrogen sulfide, which helps remove sulphur from freshly-extracted oil. Hydrogen sulfide is also a natural byproduct of petroleum and adds to the flammability of unrefined oil.
Any ignition source, whether it’s a spark caused by friction in the oil rig’s mechanisms or an unexpected rise in pressure in the underwater oil well, can trigger catastrophic fires and blowout-type explosions. In most cases, the oil rig crews extinguish fires quickly and few injuries occur.
However, major accidents such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout can destroy a multimillion dollar facility, cause billions of dollars in environmental damage and kill or injure scores of workers. Many of these incidents contributed to the 112 deaths in the oil and gas industry recorded by the BLS in 2012.
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