The Dangers of Offshore Work, Part 4: The Injuries
Dustin was preparing himself for a risky workday. As a former Marine, he was no stranger to risky workdays—he enlisted in 2004, during the height of the conflict in the Middle East. He completed two tours, fought in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and came away largely unscathed. As unscathed as any Marine who’s seen combat can be, anyway.
Still, today felt different. The 28-year-old worker would be welding a water hauler tank for the bosses at Nabors Completion and Production Services. According to OSHA regulations, water haulers involved in oil production have to be thoroughly cleaned before any hot work can be done to them, as many of them contain a large volume of flammable oil residue.
Dustin looked at the tank and knew it wasn’t as clean as it needed to be. He let his fiancée know: “I’m literally going to be welding something that’s full of oil. Don’t feel comfortable welding this at all. Dangerous as [expletive].”
Still, Dustin had a job to do, and he was going to do it.
The resulting explosion subjected Dustin to intense force and severe burns. He died from multi-organ failure 5 days later, caused by both thermal burns and blunt-force injuries to the abdomen.
Nabors was cited for a willful violation by OSHA—the rarest and most heinous classification the agency can cite. The same year Dustin died, a Houston Chronicle investigation found that Nabors had the highest fatality rate of nearly any oil company in the U.S. Nabors was placed on a list of severe violators by OSHA as a result of the fatal accident.
The Deadliest Industry in the United States
Oil drilling and extraction is the most dangerous industry for workers. Taken together, offshore and onshore oil drilling is seven times more fatal for workers than the average industry fatality rate. The difference in fatality rate is even more pronounced than it used to be—oil exploration is one of the only industries where fatalities haven't dropped.
Today, our blog series explores the injury risks that offshore workers face—many of which overlap with the risks faced by onshore oil workers. The vital difference, of course, is that offshore workers are often hundreds of miles away from the nearest hospital, with limited access to immediate medical intervention.
The Most Common Causes of Death on Offshore Rigs
From 2003 to 2010, the CDC compiled fatal incidents that occurred on or in relation to offshore platforms. Their findings provide a look inside the type of harm offshore workers face under unsafe circumstances—especially in the Gulf of Mexico. Of the 128 fatalities recorded by the CDC, 127 took place on or around oil production platforms in the Gulf.
The CDC categorized 128 fatalities that occurred in the offshore industry:
- Transportation incidents – 51% (65 fatalities)
- Contact with equipment – 16% (21 fatalities)
- Fires and explosions – 13% (17 fatalities)
- Toxic exposure – 13% (16 fatalities)
Keep in mind that these categories are the most common causes of fatal incidents, but they also have long-term ramifications for workers who are injured and survive. Burns and head injuries cause permanent injury to hundreds yearly.
To clarify, contact with equipment involves situations where machinery failed in some way that caused a worker to be killed. This would include a crane dropping equipment onto a worker or a forklift pinning a worker against a wall.
As you can see, the vast majority of these deaths don’t involve the work itself—it involves transportation. Three-quarters of these fatal incidents were helicopter crashes, 17 of which occurred during the study’s time period. Helicopter crash fatalities can be divided into three categories according to their cause: engine failure, weather, and drowning after impact.
Each helicopter crash occurred in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Dangers of Toxic Exposure
Handling gasoline or raw oil involves exposure to incredibly dangerous and volatile fumes. Even if a worker survives decades without incident in the offshore industry, years of exposure can still result in injury years after the fact. Asbestos, oil fumes, and other toxins can lead to pleural disease—or disease that affects the lining of the lungs.
In some pleural diseases, the lung lining toughens up and stiffens, making breathing progressively difficult. In asbestosis, the air sacs of the lungs slowly transform into scar tissue, which keeps them from expanding or contracting effectively. Diseases like these may take up to 30 years to manifest, making them impossible to notice in the early stages.
As a side note, our firm has personal experience with this sort of situation—some of our clients have come in with incurable lung conditions that were caused decades prior. Many ignored their symptoms because pleural disease has the same signs as bronchitis. If you or a loved one has a persistent cough, please see a doctor.
The Most Common Causes of Injury on Offshore Rigs
Contrary to what a person might think about the danger of offshore work, most of the danger doesn’t involve the water itself. An oil platform is an enormous industrial city on top of the water—which means the greatest injury danger comes from handling the equipment and materials. It’s unfortunately compounded by the circumstances of being at sea.
For example, platforms are hours away from the nearest hospital, so any immediate intervention has to be handled by medical staff on the rig. When evacuation is necessary, some employers don’t act quickly enough—our firm currently represents the estate of a man who died because he had a heart attack but was forced to remain on the rig for hours.
The other danger comes from the nature of offshore work—employees work 12-hour alternating shifts for 14 days straight. That sort of pace does not lend itself to recovery, which can turn even a minor injury into a long-term issue.
The most common offshore work injuries we encounter are:
- Back injuries
- Loss of limb
- Crush injuries
- Brain and spine injuries
For people who work desk jobs, minor back injuries are a painful hassle. For people who work in an industry like oil exploration, any back injury potentially means the end of a career. Many workers break or injure their backs from slipping and falling, falling from a height, or tripping over unstable machinery. Unfortunately, workers can also develop back injuries from repetitive stress—meaning there’s no one incident that caused the injury, but hundreds of incidents.
All of these injuries are potentially fatal, but even non-fatal cases carry lifelong consequences. Burn injuries and amputation, for example, as both physical and psychological injuries. Victims have to rebuild their lives after permanent disfigurement or damage, and there’s no overstating how much emotional endurance and support that requires.
Major Injuries Come with Lifelong Ramifications
People are fundamentally changed by traumatic experiences. They aren’t “accidents”—they’re tectonic shifts in a person’s outlook, their capabilities, their relationships, and their careers. For workers with spouses and children, the emotional trauma can spill over into their lives as well. In a sense, children “lose” their mothers and fathers (as they know them) when they experience trauma. This is the “pain and suffering” that offshore injury lawyers fight for in severe cases.
Something we’d like to clarify is that a non-quantifiable injury is not inconsequential. Emotional and psychological damage comes with real consequences, affecting a victim’s ability to work and function.
In September 2011, Michael Twinn witnessed an explosion that killed a 21-year-old derrick worker who was on his first day. He lost his legs in the same explosion. After years of suffering from PTSD, Michael took his own life in October 2013.
Here's the truth: trauma lasts for years, and left untreated, it claims as many lives as physical injuries.
The Only Solution for Many Workers
At Arnold & Itkin, our most important role is ensuring that our clients have the care they need. We find the best possible doctors and rehabilitation specialists for those in our care because these injuries demand to be taken seriously. Without proper attention, workers can lost function in their bodies and minds permanently.
Part of our role, however, is ensuring that our clients receive help for their emotional injuries as well. Therapy is a vital and often-ignored step in the recovery process for survivors of offshore disasters. Even small incidents can leave lasting scars. Our work is to keep our clients wholly healthy—including their body, mind, and spirit.
The point of offshore claims isn’t to squeeze oil companies for every dime they have whenever someone stubs their toe (although with billions in revenue, it’s not like they can’t afford it). Most workers are like Dustin—honest people who just want to do their jobs. That job has a cost. Our role is to make sure that companies pay the cost, not employees.
The point of a claim is to put a number to a person’s injuries, the costs of treatment and recovery, the wages they lose while recovering, and the training and support they’ll need to build a new career or start a new life. It’s complex and sometimes costly, but it’s necessary. It’s necessary for the future security of any injured worker. It’s necessary to protect the safety of workers who have (thankfully) remained uninjured. It's necessary to teach companies that they need to value safety.
It’s necessary because stories like Dustin’s and Michael's are far too common, and they don't need to be.