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- Maritime Law
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On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion captured the attention of a global audience. The incident claimed the lives of 11 rig employees, injured 17 others, and led to four million barrels of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. This tragic day provided the general public with one of the most dramatic illustrations of a truth well known to petrochemical professionals: It’s a dangerous line of work.
People can and do get seriously injured or worse during the course of employment on these sites. It is a revealing fact that the word “roughneck”—an informal descriptor for a tough person—first gained widespread popularity as a (non-derogatory) term for workers in the oil drilling sector.
All this means that the dangers of this kind of employment could hardly be called an industry secret, but it also must be said that oil rigs aren’t the only job sites where employees must cope with life-threatening dangers.
Where exactly does oil rigging work fit on the spectrum of dangerous employment? Could it be that the visibility of maritime work has given us an exaggerated impression of its hazardousness? As it happens, there’s plenty of data out there to help us answer these questions, so let’s take this opportunity to explore the facts and figures relating to this issue.
The available data is quite clear: Oil rigs are dangerous places to work—far more so than the average job site.
It’s a tough job, and, contrary to popular opinion, oil rig employees aren’t necessarily compensated well for laboring under potentially deadly conditions. The average oil rig worker’s salary falls under $40,000/year.4
What is it about oil rig employment that makes it so dangerous? Part of it has to do with the variety of hazards commonly found in these environments.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 40% of deaths in this industry occur in transportation events. Most of the fatalities in this category are due to pickup truck crashes.5
The second most common cause of death—again, going by CDC statistics—is that of fires and explosions, like the blast that killed eleven men on Deepwater Horizon. This accounts for around 14 percent of job site fatalities.5 The suddenness with which these kinds of incidents tend to arise can make it extremely difficult for personnel to avoid severe injury.
Coming in third place on the CDC list of industry-related fatalities is “exposure to harmful substances or environments,” which adds up to nearly 9 percent of deaths.5 Hazardous chemicals are common on oil rigs, and it’s often necessary for workers to be around them. Even if the worker avoids direct contact with corrosive chemicals, invisible fumes may still pose a danger; asphyxiation can strike suddenly.
In addition, offshore oil rigs are vulnerable to harsh weather conditions, often changing dramatically with minimal notice. Oil rig personnel frequently aren’t in a position to be able to evacuate the premises with any reasonable speed. An employee who takes a tumble overboard can easily develop a potentially fatal case of hypothermia, and frostbite could require the amputation of a finger or an entire limb.
The fourth most common cause of death—8 percent on the CDC list—is due to falling, tripping, or slipping.5 Taking a wrong step on an elevated platform can be deadly. Wet surfaces, open hatches, and improperly placed objects can and do sometimes lead to fatal accidents.
Worker fatigue undoubtedly plays a significant role in the incidence of on-the-job injuries and fatalities. On an oil rig, it’s not uncommon for personnel to toil away on 12-hour shifts, often going for weeks without a day off. This substantially heightens the risk of worker error, which makes the worker and their fellow laborers vulnerable to serious physical danger on a site where they’re in close proximity to heavy mobile equipment, toxic gases, corrosive chemicals, and other threats.
Tired workers are also less likely to respond optimally to unexpected dangers that can arise on an oil rig.
It also needs to be pointed out that oil rig workers are prone to a broad spectrum of non-lethal injuries. The list of maladies includes crushed or broken fingers (due to malfunctioning or improperly operated equipment), back injuries (from blunt force trauma or incorrect lifting technique), and compartment syndrome (persistent build-up of pressure in a body part due to repetitive movement). Oil rig injuries are often quite serious in nature, sometimes with lasting effects on the victim.
Interestingly, death rates on oil rigs vary widely from one region to another. One recent study found that the state of North Dakota holds the dubious distinction of having the highest fatality rate in the U.S. oil and gas industry: 75 deaths per 100,000 workers (for the years 2011-2012).
This is nearly three times the death rate for the industry as a whole (which is, itself, as we’ve noted, markedly higher than the death rate for the average U.S. worker across all occupations). This rate is roughly double that of West Virginia and New Mexico, which occupy the 2nd and 3rd spots on this list.6
What’s the reason for North Dakota’s high fatality rate? An article posted by collaborative journalism initiative Inside Energy speculates that it may be a combination of worker inexperience and comparatively lax regulatory protocols.7
The hazards associated with oil rig employment have not gone unnoticed by the industry or by government organizations with an interest in workplace safety. A number of programs and safety measures have been implemented with the aim of reducing the dangers present on oil rigs and related job site environments. These efforts have been largely successful—the rate of oil rig deaths per year has declined precipitously over the past decade.
A CDC report points to the growing use of automated technology as a major factor in lowering the death and injury rates in the oil and gas extraction industry.8 Automation reduces the need for workers to handle dangerous materials and equipment.
Worker education should become a paramount concern for this industry, including propagation of whistleblower laws that encourage employees to report unsafe workplace conditions. Periodic workplace inspections, in conformity with OSHA rules, should also be standard procedure for oil rigs across the land.
Even with strict safety protocols in place, however, it’s unlikely that oil rigs will become entirely free of hazards anytime soon. Injuries will continue to happen. What oil rig employees need to understand is that help is available to them in the event that they suffer serious physical harm in connection with their job duties. There are a variety of laws and statutes in place to protect the rights of maritime workers and enable them, or their families, to collect substantial monetary compensation.
To maximize your chances of collecting the full compensation to which you are entitled, you need an offshore and maritime injury lawyer who has substantial experience with these matters. Call 713-893-0971 to contact the legal team at Schechter, Shaffer & Harris, one of the most respected admiralty law firms in the nation. We answer the phone 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.