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The Danger of Catastrophic Well Blowouts

by | Aug 18, 2021 | Catastrophic Injuries, Oilfield Accidents, Workplace Accidents, Wrongful Death | 0 comments

Beneath the crisscrossing latticework of an oil derrick, the threat of catastrophic well failure always looms. Perhaps the most feared of all oilfield accidents is the unanticipated well blowout, which can have catastrophic, deadly consequences.

Many different oil workers across Texas put themselves at risk every day they go to work. They put their health and lives on the line for the sake of the oil and gas industry, and they deserve to receive compensation when someone’s negligence leads to a catastrophic well blowout and injures them in the process.

At Wyatt Law Firm, we handle personal injury claims for oil workers and others who suffer injuries due to well blowouts. Contact us if you suffered injuries or lost a loved one in this type of accident.

Oil Wells in Texas

More than 149,000 people in the State of Texas work in the oil and gas industry in some capacity, and these numbers are on the low end due to layoffs during the Covid-19 pandemic. Texas leads the 50 states in having the most active oil wells, which top 183,000 across the Lone Star State. The most active oil-producing region is District 8 of the Permian Basin, with more than 57,000 wells in that district alone.

These active wells all require servicing by oil workers, and there is always the risk of a well blowout. When these events happen, anyone in the area can sustain catastrophic and life-changing injuries.

What is a blowout?

A blowout occurs when a sudden spike in well pressure shoots the well’s contents from ground level. Drilling wells sustain pressure from the earth’s crust and also use internal pressure to keep fluids circulating. However, disruptions can reverse the flow of well contents and drive them back to the earth’s surface with extreme force.

Blowouts can happen during any part of the oil drilling process. There are both well blowouts and subsea blowouts that happen on oil rigs.

Well blowouts that happen on land can result in oil or gas ejecting from below the surface. Mud, sand, and stones can also shoot up, presenting the risk of additional injuries due to debris. Anyone in the vicinity can suffer severe or fatal injuries.

Subsea well blowouts happen on oil rigs, and the equipment is located on the ocean floor. This makes it extremely difficult to address the problem or identify the cause of the blowout because the seabed could be anywhere from about ten to 8,000 feet below the water surface. Even though these blowouts happen underwater, they can still result in serious injuries to those on oil rigs, other vessels, or even on the shoreline.

No matter where a blowout occurs, it is a serious matter and can affect the lives of many oil workers or others not associated with the oil company. Those who suffer injuries and losses due to well blowouts might have important legal rights, and you should discuss your best course of action with a Texas oil well accident lawyer.

How do blowouts occur? Can they be stopped?

Well blowouts can occur from natural or manmade conditions, though the very unpredictability of blowouts makes them difficult to stop.

Unforeseen geologic conditions cause well blowouts.

Sometimes the drilling taps into a pressurized reservoir that kicks well contents back up to the surface. “Drilling mud,” pumped down the well to create pressure, sometimes creates too much pressure or interacts with geologic substances, launching pressurized sediment, fluids, and gases back up the drillstring.

Manmade drilling conditions such as faulty equipment or well mismanagement also cause blowouts. Using the wrong drilling mud mixture can cause clay blockages that over-pressurize the well. Other human errors contribute to blowouts as well. A dozen contractors may participate simultaneously on a single drilling rig, and lack of oversight often leads to safety issues. To prevent blowouts, drill teams primarily rely on specific equipment.

The notable mechanism for stopping blowouts is the “blowout preventer” (BOP), a large set of valves placed beneath the derrick floor. BOPs save lives. However, a BOP must be closed to work, and well blowouts happen unexpectedly. BOPs also have pressure limits and have failed in the past.

The most notorious oil well blowout in recent history was the Deepwater Horizon in 2010. In that case, the blowout preventer should have activated immediately when the initial explosion occurred. The BOP failed, however, as did the underwater robots trying to manually trigger the BOP. After much investigation, authorities found that this disaster happened due to “gross negligence“ on the part of British Petroleum.

Well blowouts do not have to cause months-long oil spills to injure people. Even a relatively minor blowout that companies get under control quickly can have devastating effects for injured victims.

How do blowouts hurt workers?

Blowouts are extremely dangerous, often unleashing multiple volatile forces.

The sudden release of pressure at the surface can shoot equipment parts, snap heavy cables, and destabilize the derrick.

Bystanders can sustain many types of injuries, including – but certainly not limited to – the following:

Blunt force trauma – Blunt force trauma often occurs when other objects forcefully strike the body. Blunt force trauma is distinct from penetrating trauma, which causes open wounds. Some of the specific injuries that people can sustain as a result of blunt force trauma include bruises, cuts and scrapes, broken bones, and damage to internal organs.

Lacerations – Lacerations are skin wounds that people commonly refer to as cuts. They often occur due to sharp objects like the edges of equipment or blades designed for cutting. Lacerations have the potential to be extremely painful and require surgery to repair. In some cases, they can also result in permanent and unsightly scarring.

Amputations – Amputations are among the most traumatic and often life-changing injuries a person can sustain. Amputations involve the complete loss of a body part. While in some cases where victims can obtain medical attention a few hours after their injury body parts can be reattached, in many cases, accidental amputations result in the permanent loss of the affected body part. This fact means that many people who have suffered amputations must adapt to life without part of their body. In cases where people lose entire limbs, they may need mobility devices or prosthetics for the rest of their lives.

Concussive injuries – Concussive injuries like concussions and traumatic brain injuries are extremely serious – even when healthcare professionals label them as mild. Any concussion requires immediate medical attention, and many people with standard-issue concussions can suffer from symptoms and side effects for weeks or even months. In some cases, concussion complications can keep victims from working or attending school for an extended time.

More serious traumatic brain injuries can leave victims with even more serious problems, such as issues with memory, cognition, and motor control. In the most serious cases, victims may be unable to live or work independently and may require lifelong around-the-clock medical care.

Ear and eye injuries – Well blowouts are loud events, and people in the immediate area can suffer irreversible damage to their inner ears. This can result in major hearing loss. Further, debris from a blowout can injure someone’s eye, potentially leading to vision loss. These are permanent impairments that can change nearly every aspect of a victim’s life.

Psychological trauma – Well blowouts are traumatic events. Just like explosions can cause military members to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental disorders, so can well blowouts for oil workers. PTSD can have debilitating effects, and workers with this condition might never return to work on the oil field. Ongoing psychological treatment and medication might be necessary for those with psychological trauma from a blowout.

Burn injuries – Blowouts also release flammable hydrocarbons that can ignite from sparks or friction, fueling explosions and rig fires that cause burn injuries. Burn injuries can be severe, as third-degree burns damage all of the skin’s layers and tissue underneath. Victims of severe burns can suffer infections, amputations, and permanent disfigurement. Victims might not retain full use of burned body parts, and they have to adapt to life with scarring and impairments.

Inhalation injuries – Blowouts can even tap toxic gases such as methane, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide—all of which can incapacitate or even kill when inhaled.

Inhalation of these chemicals can cause many different problems, including:

  • Brain damage and potentially permanent cognitive and physical impairments
  • Respiratory problems
  • Cardiac issues that can lead to life-threatening heart disease and cardiac events

Sometimes, inhalation can lead to a loss of consciousness, which can put an injury victim at risk of further injuries if they pass out in a well blowout.

When wells blow, they tend to blow big, and they cause oilfield accident fatalities every year. Unfortunately, workers caught in the crosshairs of a well blowout may sustain catastrophic injuries or even die. Survivors of well blowouts often lead very different lives post-blowout, as they might struggle with impairments, disfigurement, lack of income, changed personal relationships, pain and suffering, and more.

Medical Treatment Needed After Well Blowouts

Many oil workers need extensive medical care following a well blowout.

Emergency trauma care is often necessary, and victims might need:

  • Time in the hospital or intensive care unit (ICU)
  • Surgeries and post-operative care
  • Time in a burn center
  • Oxygen therapy
  • Assistive devices, including prosthetics
  • Ongoing physical and psychological therapy
  • Psychological treatment

All medical care is costly in Texas, and the bills for treatment can add up quickly. Workers who suffered injuries should not have to cover their own medical costs, as those responsible for the blowout should also be responsible for the harm they cause.

Lost Employment Following an Oil Well Blowout

If you suffered a catastrophic injury in a blowout, chances are your future employment will also suffer. First, many people who experience this type of disaster are unwilling or unable to return to work on an oil field or rig. They might be too afraid that another blowout will occur, or their injuries might prevent them from performing their previous job duties.

Many other permanent impairments can prevent oil workers from returning to their jobs – or even any job at all.

These include:

  • Heart or respiratory problems due to chemical exposure
  • Cognitive impairments from a traumatic brain injury
  • Loss of the use of a limb due to amputation or paralysis
  • Disfigurement from burns or debris injuries

When you cannot return to your job, you will lose income, and you will need financial support. Always look into whether you can seek compensation from negligent parties for your past and future lost earnings.

Intangible Effects of Blowout Injuries

While a well blowout can certainly lead to overwhelming financial losses, this is not where the impact on your life ends. Catastrophic injuries can take a huge toll on your everyday life, relationships, demeanor, and more. Some common intangible losses following a severe blowout injury include pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, impairment and more.

Unlike medical bills or lost income, you cannot present receipts, invoices, or pay statements to prove how much you deserve for intangible losses. Instead, our attorneys know the types of evidence needed to prove the extent of these non-economic damages. This is often a significant portion of an injury settlement or award following such severe injury, so you want to make sure you never accept less than you deserve if you can seek compensation.

What can workers do for compensation?

Although oil and gas companies may offer worker’s compensation, that may not cover future expenses for lifelong injuries. That’s why oil and gas workers need someone on their side who can determine whether there are additional sources of compensation. In some cases, victims may be able to make a personal injury claim against a third party or even their employer.

Workers’ Compensation Benefits vs. Personal Injury Claims

When employers carry workers’ compensation insurance, employees who sustain injuries on the job typically may not file a personal injury claim against their employer for their negligence. Instead, they typically need to file a claim with their employer’s workers’ compensation insurer to seek benefits for their losses. This system allows employers to limit their liability while still making sure that injured workers can obtain benefits for lost wages and medical expenses related to work-related accidents.

Unfortunately, the benefits associated with workers’ compensation are limited and do not include benefits for non-economic losses like pain and suffering and lost quality of life. Because these kinds of losses can make up the bulk of oil well blowout victims’ damages, if victims can file a personal injury claim, they almost always should.

Unlike other states, Texas does not require employers to carry workers’ compensation insurance. If your employer does not, and you suffered injuries in an accident due to your employer’s negligence, you can file a lawsuit. As mentioned above, if your employer does carry worker’s compensation insurance, you may be limited to filing a claim on their policy.

Fortunately, there are some circumstances under which victims can file a personal injury claim after an oil well blowout even when their employer carries workers’ compensation insurance.

Some of the most common of these circumstances include:

  • When the blowout happened due to defective equipment
  • When the accident was the result of the negligence of a third party contractor

In many cases, the fact that an injured worker could file a personal injury claim is not clear, so it’s important to always have an attorney review your case after an oil well blowout. In addition, if you are an independent contractor (as opposed to an employee), you can file a personal injury claim whether your employer has workers’ compensation insurance or not.

Wrongful Death Claims after Fatal Oil Well Blowouts

Many blowouts result in fatalities, leaving families with tragic financial, practical, and emotional losses. In Texas, the law allows surviving spouses, children, or parents to file a wrongful death claim against negligent parties to seek financial recovery for their losses.

Grieving loved ones might recover damages for:

  • Lost income of the deceased
  • Lost household services and support
  • Lost love and companionship
  • Lost inheritance
  • Mental pain and anguish

If the accident happened due to gross negligence or willful conduct, families might be able to seek exemplary damages, as well. Family members should discuss a possible claim with our attorneys following a fatal blowout.

Speak With a Texas Oil Injury Lawyer Right Away

If you suffered injuries or your loved one died in an oilfield accident, the Wyatt Law Firm hears you. Our oilfield accident attorneys have years of experience litigating these types of cases, and we have a formidable record of courtroom success. We have highly technical knowledge of oil wells, blowouts, and possible negligence that led to these catastrophic accidents. We also have oil and gas experts ready to identify who should be liable for a blowout and all resulting injuries and losses.

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