Working on an oil rig is very dangerous work, regardless of whether the rig is onshore or offshore. Employees in the oil industry require extensive training because one wrong move can mean the difference between life and death. Oil is a very volatile and explosive substance, and employers do not always follow the rules. Many companies are trying to prioritize a quick buck over the lives and safety of their workers. As a result, scores of people suffer injuries or die each year working on oil rigs.
How Many Oil Rig Workers Die a Year?
A ten-year study concluded that about 1,189 people in the gas and oil extraction industry just shy of 110 people a year. Only 10 one per year were women, and most were ages 25 to 34. Transportation accidents accounted for about 40 percent of the deaths, about 26 percent from contact with equipment, and about 14 percent from fires or explosions. The death rate was about 25 per 100,000 workers. Drilling company workers experienced the highest death rate (44.6 per 100,000) of those in the industry.
Skilled Workers Receive Good Pay in Exchange for Facing the Dangers of Their Jobs
Oil patch workers make a good wage – and for a good reason. Oil drilling is a specialized field, and the skill set of an experienced worker will be attractive to numerous companies. Many of these companies need to scale up production in a hurry to take advantage of rising oil prices. The same businesses are chasing the same workers and bidding their wages higher. Some companies may cut corners because they cannot find enough employees to work their rigs.
Oil rigs extract a volatile and combustible substance. Companies use heavy equipment to extract oil and gas from deep below the ground or the ocean floor. Employees on an offshore oil rig, literally in the middle of the sea on a fixed platform, depend on their company’s safety measures for their lives. These offshore oil rigs can sustain damage if a sea vessel strikes them or in an explosion. In fact, some of the largest mass casualty events on rigs involved collisions with large boats.
Any well, onshore or offshore, can be vulnerable to a sudden buildup in pressure. Oil extraction uses potent and flammable chemicals. The risk of fire and explosion is far higher in the oil drilling industry.
Common Causes of Deaths on Oil Rigs
Here are the most common types of accidents on oil rigs:
- Caught-in-between accidents – this is the most common type of accident that causes serious injury. Workers may get caught between two different hazards and crushed. They may get stuck under moving equipment.
- Falls – oil rigs can be very slippery, with product leaking on the ground all around the rig. In addition, there may be equipment and pieces lying around on the rig side, posing a tripping risk. Some companies may not have proper guardrails or fully-working ladders on the rig. Workers fell to their deaths from rigs in several reported incidents. They fall great distances into deep water and can die from the fall itself or drowning. In one incident, four workers fell to their deaths because the rig operator did not fix patchy grating that the employees fell through.
- Explosions – oil rigs are working with combustible and volatile materials. Rigs can experience blowouts when there are sudden changes in pressure. When pulling oil from the ground, proper handling is key. Otherwise, it can spark an explosion.
- Electrocution – this is an especially large hazard on offshore oil rigs when the combination of water and exposed wiring can cause electrocution. Employees may use extension cords, and water may enter them. Other extension cords can lack proper prongs or be otherwise defective.
Why Oil Rig Work Can Be So Risky
Oilfield and oil rig workers face considerable risks:
- Oil rig workers may launch into their jobs without adequate safety training. Companies must spend money to train workers, and training keeps them from production.
- There is constant activity on an oil rig. Workers must take transportation to get to and from the rig, whether it is on a car or helicopter.
- Oil companies do not always prioritize investments in creating a safety-compliance culture.
- When oil prices are low, companies may skimp on repairing and replacing equipment that might be at the end of its useful life.
What We Learn from Oil Fatality Statistics
Here are some statistics relating to oil rig fatalities in recent years:
- In one recent year, 69 fatalities took place, a comparatively low number; 44 of these deaths occurred in Texas. One interesting trend from this year is that, by far, workers who had less than one year of experience were the most likely to die. In 10 out of the 28 fatalities, researchers knew the experience level of the workers.
- Ninety-two oil rig fatalities took place in two years. Most of the fatalities were workers with less than 10 years of experience, and 54 of these 92 fatalities happened during rig servicing. More than half the fatalities were transportation or contact injuries. Many of the contact fatalities were caught-between accidents.
Oil field fatality rates were considerably higher for most of the first decade of the 21st century. Companies were trying to scale up production to meet growing demand. Fracking was a relatively new practice that oil companies were still learning. In addition, oil companies were struggling to find workers to staff these new oilfields.
Safety Measures Has Brought Down the Fatality Rate
Increased regulation brought the fatality rate down somewhat during much of the last decade. In addition, the Great Recession caused oil prices to crater and slashed oil production at many companies, leading to a further drop in oil field fatalities. However, the drop in fatalities ended, and the numbers began increasing again over the past several years.
The number of fatalities overall did dip in 2020 because there was less oil production because of the pandemic. However, there has been growing oil production recently, and experienced workers have either resigned or have missed work time during the pandemic.
For offshore rig workers, they have a fatality rate seven times higher than the chance that the average American will die on the job. To some extent, the Deepwater Horizon disaster skews these statistics. In this terrible accident, 11 people lost their lives when a well blowout caused an explosion and one of the largest ecological disasters in American history.
Offshore oil rigs introduce a fatality risk that onshore workers do not have. They fly by helicopter to the rig, and there is a crash risk. Other times, they reach the rig by boat, and some vessels can capsize or sink on the way to a rig. These boats usually travel rough waters, especially in the Gulf of Mexico.
In a single recent year, six workers died in offshore rig accidents, which represented an increase over previous years. Further, this number does not include several transportation-related accidents when workers died trying to reach the rig.
The CDC’s Analysis of Oil Field Fatalities
The Centers for Disease Control released a study of reports of oil rig fatalities based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The research study looked at fatalities during the oil boom over a decade. According to the CDC, 1,189 deaths took place during this period. However, the total number of deaths may be misleading because the actual death rate decreased during this period. The number of rigs and oilfield personnel doubled during this time, so more employees staffed the fields and were at risk of fatalities.
The study found that transportation events were one of the leading causes of death in oil fields. Employees might suffer fatal injuries on their way to and from the oil field, and truck drivers can also suffer serious injuries in accidents. In terms of work on the actual oil field, this study found that contact with objects was the leading cause of death. This includes caught-between accidents. In recent years, technological and safety improvements have reduced the rates of these accidents. However, even one fatality is still too much.
Increased Production Still Means Increased Fatalities
While the decrease in fatality rates is a welcome development, more workers are still dying because of increased production. In addition, many have questioned the reliability of the reported statistics. Oilfield and offshore rig deaths are underreported. Some of this blame can fall at the feet of federal agencies, whose reporting criteria do not pick up all oil industry deaths. Thus, the improving safety picture may be more of a mirage than reality.
First, the federal government does not count transportation accidents in oil fatality totals. Second, the criteria do not always characterize certain accidents as work-related. Third, if the offshore oil rig is in state waters, the company does not even have to report the death to the federal government.
What to Do if Your Loved One Died in an Oil Rig Accident
Families whose loved ones passed away in oil rig accidents need to perform a full investigation of the circumstances of their loved one’s death before they decide on their legal course of action. Oil rig deaths may fall under workers’ compensation programs whether they happen onshore or offshore. There is a different federal program for offshore worker injuries and deaths.
However, a workers’ compensation claim is not always the best thing for a family that is seeking to maximize damages after their loved one died. These claims do not pay for full lost wages for the rest of the deceased worker’s career. Only a personal injury claim can cover full lost wages between the time of death and the duration of what would have been the decedent’s career.
Third-Party Personal Injury Lawsuits After Oil Rig Fatalities
To file a wrongful death lawsuit after an oilfield accident, the family will need to search for a third party liable for the accident. Of course, if the company did not have workers’ compensation insurance, they can also be liable in a lawsuit.
If your loved one died in a transportation accident, the natural defendant is the company that operated the helicopter or boat. If your loved one was a truck driver who died on the job, you might consider filing a lawsuit against the driver responsible for the crash. You might also sue the makers of equipment that killed your loved one if it was defective.
Your oilfield injury lawyer may even find multiple third parties who can face lawsuits for wrongful death. If the defendant is a company, your recovery may be even greater because they likely have a large insurance policy. If the negligent person was an employee of a company, their employer is liable for their injuries.
Wrongful Death Damages in an Oil Rig Lawsuit
First, your lawyer will need to establish the cause of the accident to figure out the right party to sue (if you can sue at all).
If you have the right to file a wrongful death lawsuit, your family can receive:
- Lost wages for what your loved one should have earned throughout their lifetime. Given the high wages in the oil drilling sector, these damages can be considerable.
- Payment for your family’s grief and trauma at losing their loved one. Oil field accidents are sudden and unexpected, and your family might have suffered a high degree of distress and trauma.
- Compensation for the loss of your loved one’s support and guidance
- Loss of consortium damages for the spouse
Statistics show that most oil rig workers who die on the job are younger than 40. Younger accident victims usually mean higher wrongful death damages. The family loses more when a younger person dies. They would have earned more wages because their remaining career is longer. In addition, the accident victim may have been a young father whose presence meant a great deal to the family. Wrongful death cases place a dollar value on a lost life and what the person meant to the family.