The Dangers of Working Offshore, Part 2: The Workers
First, a Dedication
For years, our firm has worked on behalf of offshore workers, becoming a part of their lives while we fought to protect them. We have seen some of the worst injuries possible on oil rigs and shipping vessels happen to people who wanted nothing but to do their jobs. These men and women live their lives in the teeth of fate, with nothing but hardhats, tethers, and faith in their crewmates to keep them afloat. Every day, they do incredible things simply because it is needed.
This is dedicated to them.
Today, we continue our series of blogs on the unique dangers of offshore drilling and vessel work. Part 2 focuses the most important part of any ship or rig: the workers. In this blog, we’ll cover some of the unique risks workers face, what it’s like to be a worker on an oil rig, and the chain of command that allows a vessel to operate.
One of the “Worst” Most Satisfying Jobs in America
Walking alongside the edge of an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico is a surreal experience. One on side of your view, there will be a structure that resembles an office building mixed with a hotel. This building will house rooms with TVs in them, a gym, a restaurant, meeting rooms—everything you could want or need within walking distance.
The floating city hosts movie nights, video game tournaments, office gossip, petty grudges and real camaraderie. If you made a list of all the things you would associate with home, the rig might meet quite a few of the same criteria.
On the other side of your view is something else entirely: a lifeboat hanging over the edge of the rig, thousands of feet above water, with sharks prowling the area below for food. A lifeboat that you know you may have to use one day. Framing this view is nothing but the horizon—hundreds of miles of open ocean, hours away from the nearest help or civilization.
There are dozens of well-known statistics explaining or demonstrating the dangers of offshore work. But no factoid sums up the strange and compelling contradiction of offshore work more than the everyday image of a lifeboat hanging precariously above the deep. Offshore workers are 7 times more likely to die on the job than the average job in America. Workers are miles from shore, trapped on the rig for weeks at a time. And the work is damn hard—harder than most things American workers will ever endure. CNBC called offshore work one of the 10 worst jobs in America based on danger and hardship.
So why do workers continue to seek work on oil platforms?
“After 14 Days [Away], I’m Ready to Come Back”
In our years of becoming close with offshore workers, we’ve realized they are more complex than many people ever realize. They’re not unaware of the dangers of their job—far from it. Many of them undergo 90-minute safety training as soon as they arrive on the rig, and the vast majority of workers are aware of serious problems that none of us hear about.
One worker said to a Wall Street Journal reporter, “There are something like 100 gas leaks a year all over the North Sea. Most of them aren’t serious, it’s part of what happens out there, but it’s almost a miracle nothing worse happens more often.”
That’s the sort of knowledge many workers live with, yet the work itself draws them back. “Every day it amazes me that you can take oil and gas out of the ground from 18,000 feet under the seaboard floor ... bring that stuff onboard, separate it and then pipe it to shore that's 82 miles away," says Leaza Greenroad-Ford, a ballast control operator on the Olympus.
Alison Whitt, engineer on the Perdido: “At the end of 14 days here I’m ready to go home, but at the end of 14 days [off], I’m ready to come back.” Todd Coulon, a veteran offshore worker, says the rig’s work schedule lets him spend real time with his kids and really enjoy his time off—fishing, doing DIY projects, watch football games, and enjoying his life.
These are the sort of people we’ve worked with—people who find genuine joy and satisfaction in what they do. Staying on the rig, enduring the hard grind alongside a crew of people you’re with 24 hours a day, living through the same dangers, eating together, living together, all of this creates a second family for many workers.
That camaraderie is sober though—workers know many people have died in their position. For the majority of them, however, that knowledge doesn’t keep them from returning to the rig month after month. (The camaraderie is also literally sober—oil platforms forbid the presence of alcohol on the rig. The only thing you won’t find on the floating city is a bar.)
One of the Highest-Paid Professions in Private Industry
One of the major reasons workers relish their jobs is it’s one of the last high-paying professions that won’t require a college degree. Men and women with high school diplomas can make upwards of $60,000 a year—twice the national average for entry-level jobs. This sort of work gives people access to a level of prosperity few industries can match.
Those with college degrees, who often find work as engineers on oil platforms, can make up to $90,000 initially. In both cases, roughnecks and engineers have the opportunity to receive specialized training and move up the ladder. Some positions on the rig can command up to $200,000 a year salaried—all with 26 weeks of time off annually.
(Oil platforms often schedule their workers for two week shifts at a time, with two weeks of time off between shifts).
For everyday people who are strong, daring, and mechanically-inclined, working on an offshore rig is a powerful equalizer, offering a starting pay unavailable to those even with master’s degrees in other fields. Not to mention that the work is high-stakes and fulfilling—the satisfaction of problem-solving is probably even more of a draw than the salary benefits.
“Low Probability with a High Consequence”
If workers are drawn to the salary of offshore work, that’s not a coincidence. Oil companies understand that both unskilled and skilled labor can’t be attracted to a potentially life-threatening job without incentive. Greg McCormack, director of the Petroleum Extension Service at the University of Texas, said “[Accidents and disasters] are low probability with a high consequence. It is a hazardous business, and that is what the industry has to deal with on a daily basis.”
The risks aren’t the only hard part, either. For 14 days straight, workers fight through 12-hour shifts, rotating with a second crew to keep the rig running 24-hours a day. In the span of six months, a platform can accomplish a year’s worth of work under this schedule. For the 12 hours they’re off, workers enjoy the amenities of the rig, but sleep four-to-a-room in bunk beds, in quarters just barely large enough for a desk and a locker.
Part of the problem is that oil rigs are digging deeper and deeper underground, pushing existing technology to its limits. In 18,000 feet of depth, there’s a great deal of potential for weak spots. Monitoring over 3 miles of well pipe is no mean feat, either. In offshore work, you have a high-stakes dependence on your machinery to keep you safe and keep you afloat, while at the same time pushing that technology to limits it may not be ready for.
The Deepwater Horizon was once known for having the deepest well depth in the world at 35,000 feet.
Combined with the maintenance needs of aging rigs, workers are concerned about serious issues plaguing the industry. While there may be up to 100 non-serious gas leaks in the North Sea, it only takes one to create a catastrophe.
For instance, the Piper Alpha was a rig in the North Sea that exploded in 1988 due to a communication error. A condensation pump was under maintenance and wasn’t supposed to be used under any circumstances—unfortunately, the night shift was not informed and turned on the pump. The resulting explosions killed 167 workers, making it one of the worst offshore disasters ever. The root cause of the event? A missing piece of paperwork. These are the stakes our workers face.
Workers understand the danger, which is why many of them are drawn to rigs with strong safety records. Many employees understand that the the rig's fate comes down to the leadership of the OIM (offshore installation manager), which is the platform’s equivalent of a captain. Their safety policies is what ensures the well-being of the souls under their command.
Why We Fight for Offshore Workers
Offshore oil production and gas extraction is harsh but necessary work. Some dangers cannot be helped—hurricanes and natural disasters among them. However, employers have to be willing to meet the challenges of offshore work with robust, comprehensive safety practices. Our workers deserve that much. They’re regular, hardworking people with families, dreams, and futures. Offshore work is simply the path they chose to provide for their loved ones and build their lives.
If there’s one thing you should understand from reading this article, it’s that offshore work is good, noble work done by good, noble people. Our economy and our daily lives depend on rig workers who are skilled, alert, and diligent every moment of every day. The only way we as a nation can allow the industry to continue, however, is if the industry is as safe as possible. We see our work as maritime lawyers as part of that assurance—Arnold & Itkin, and lawyers like us, hold companies accountable to compel them to take care of the most valuable people in their industry.
That’s our part in all this, and we are proud to play it for as long as injured workers need protection.