Oil Rigs Aren’t Just Bad for the Environment, They Can Be Bad for Workers Too

Working on an offshore oil rig can be a lucrative and exciting occupation, but it definitely has its downsides as well. Being out in the middle of the ocean for weeks at a time isn’t for everyone, and while oil rig companies make sure employees’ accommodation, food and recreational needs are well taken care of, it’s actually for good reason.

An offshore oil rig is a massive mechanical island that may be up to 200 miles away from any dry land. Working conditions are physically demanding and fraught with a variety of hazards. Despite the fact that oil companies require extensive safety training and go to great lengths to prevent disaster, the very nature of the industry ­– extracting flammable materials in a vastly remote location – makes it unpredictable and dangerous.

Historically, the fatality rate for the oil and gas extraction industry is about seven times higher than that of the general workforce. While two-thirds of these fatalities occurred as a result of off rig transportation incidents, it still highlights the importance of worker safety on these power-driven islands.

Besides transportation incidents, oil rig fatalities and injuries are usually the result of one of the following:


The most notorious offshore oil tragedies have typically been caused or at least triggered by rough weather. Though not common, these high-profile disasters take the spotlight due to the sizeable amount of damage and significant number of casualties incurred.

In March of 1980, the Alexander L. Kielland capsized near Dundee, Scotland, killing 123 of the 212 workers on board. Though an undetected fatigue crack in one of the bracings was ultimately determined to be the root cause, the collapse was triggered by waves up to 39 feet high which rose as a result of high winds on the day of the disaster.

While many weather-related tragedies can be averted with proper rig maintenance, Mother Nature is an unpredictable danger that will always be part of the offshore industry.

Explosions and Fires

Petroleum is highly flammable and its danger is increased by chemicals used in the extraction process – making explosions another high-profile hazard of offshore rigs. Fires usually result in less damage but can the cause of explosions, making them a deadly enemy on an oil rig.

Though most fires are quickly extinguished with few injuries, a 1988 gas leak and poor communication on the Piper Alpha in the North Sea, U.K., resulted in an explosion that killed 167 of the 226 workers on board and took three weeks to contain.

Handling industrial drums safely, containing ignition sources and proper piping maintenance are imperative when those elements can devastate an isolated floating structure that’s also home to hundreds of workers.

Industrial Type Accidents

Though not as prominent, industrial accidents make up the majority of injuries, and run a close second to transportation incidents on the fatalities list. This type of mishap is usually the result of carelessness, negligence, equipment failure or worker fatigue.

Fall-related injuries are common on these multilevel structures, as workers’ jobs may span multiple decks. Proper safety equipment and training, and well-maintained ladders and railings, can decrease the probability of such accidents.

Falling objects are another common cause of injuries and fatalities on offshore rigs. Through worker carelessness or unsecured equipment, heavy tools, pipe sections and other loose items can cause serious injury, even when mandatory hardhats are worn.

A Matter of Trust

In an industry where the smallest mistake can result in devastating losses, commitment to safety becomes crucial for everyone involved – from the newest worker to the oil company executive suite. This need creates a unique camaraderie where reputation is everything.

For oil companies, even the smallest catastrophe can be financially disastrous. Good reputations and prior responsible practices can be quickly forgotten with just one failure. Workers won’t trust their health and well-being to companies that have a reputation for cutting costs and corners detrimental to the safety of employees and the environment. This makes finding seasoned, qualified workers more difficult, further eroding the quality and safety of the rig.

For workers who live together in small confined quarters and depend on one another to safely perform their duties, trust is imperative. No one wants a rogue co-worker who continually defies company policy and is careless or reckless. Even unintentional ineptitude can assign workers a poor reputation that is not easy to lose.

While offshore oil rigs are important to American energy production, they are also dangerous workplaces that need to be respected and responsibly managed. When companies and employees make safety a priority, tragedies that take lives and ravage the environment can be averted – a win-win for both the economy and nature.

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