Hundreds of thousands of people are employed by the oil and gas industry. According to the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 450,000 people were employed in extraction and support industries in 2011. Work in these industries involves a variety of processes that contribute to successful drilling and servicing of oil wells.
Because to the nature of the work, the safety and health of workers is very important to the vitality of the oil and gas industry. Specialized equipment and skills contribute to successful processes. However, awareness of risks and injury prevention holds equal importance.
Annually, the occupational fatality rate for the oil and gas industry is 27.5 deaths for every 100,000 workers between 2003 and 2010. By 2010, 823 workplace deaths occurred in the oil and gas industry. This number is more than seven times higher than the average rate for U.S. workers in all industries.
The fatality rate is linked to the level of drilling within the industry. While an increase in drilling activity is good for industry revenue, risks to workers increase when more rigs are active.
Experts do not contribute the increase solely to the nature of the industry. Other contributing factors may include longer working hours, older rigs that have fewer safeguards and more workers with less experience.
Yet despite these statistics, OSHA does not have exclusive regulatory or enforcement authority over oil rigs and production platforms. This includes the four regions located in the Outer Continental Shelf. OSHA cannot enforce workplace safety regulations for working conditions that are regulated by a separate federal government agency.
The agency does, however, cover specific industry standards for well drilling and servicing operations. This may include activities such as site excavation, trenching and leveling. Exposure to hazards that can lead to serious injury or death is part of OSHA's General Duty Clause that is applicable to all industries.
Dangerous conditions for oil and gas workers increase the risk of fatalities from safety and health hazards such as:
• Getting struck by tools or debris dropped from elevated areas, spinning rotary table, falling pipe
• Vehicle accidents
• Physically caught between collars and tongs
• Loose clothing caught in drill string
• Explosions and fires from a well blowout; welding with combustible materials close by; electrical equipment that is poorly maintained
• High pressure release of gas that can ignite
• Falling from a monkey board, stabbing boar or ladder
• Hydrogen sulfide chemical exposure during drilling, swabbing, etc.
• Rig collapse from overloading beyond the approved capacity; improper anchoring, lowering or raising; unresolved maintenance issues
In general, this is a highly dangerous occupation for workers. Numerous working conditions from oil rigging and other operations expose workers to safety hazards. Throughout a work shift, noise from generators and equipment can potentially damage eardrums.
Extracting natural gas and oil from the ocean bed or beneath the earth is volatile. Companies should make sure that all workers receive proper training, wear appropriate safety gear and take precautions for personal safety.
Statistics for nonfatal injuries in different segments of the oil and gas industry are lower than the annual rate of all private industries. In 2010, only 1.9 per 100 workers suffered nonfatal injuries compared to 3.5 per 100 workers in all private industries.
Oil and gas automatically exposes workers to extremely flammable substances. Under enormous pressure, the chances of an explosion increases. Workers have suffered from second, third and fourth degree burns. Spinal cord injuries, amputations and serious health problems from inhaling toxic fumes are additional injuries that can occur.
Exposure to hazardous conditions may occur within any type of industry or job. Accidents can happen at any time whether working outdoors or indoors. Proper training and procedures can help to minimize workplace injuries or deaths.
Oil and gas employers are responsible for providing a safe place to work and should actively address unsafe situations. By assigning safety departments and monitoring processes, employers are fulfilling their responsibility. Government agencies regulate the industry by setting high safety standards to reinforce safe practices.
At the same time, workers expect a safe environment and have a right to refuse unsafe working conditions. They should also report concerns or potential hazards to supervisors immediately.
Collectively, employers, the government and workers contribute to addressing workplace safety issues in the oil and gas industry. Hopefully, these contributions will reduce the number of injuries and fatalities.