Drill Rig Accidents

On April 20, 2010, an oil spill involving the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon led to 185 million gallons of water escaping into the water, where marine species perished, and fishermen have seen declines in catches. As big as the disaster was, and continues to be as oil still lurks under the water, it is only one of many accidents. Many of these are caused by negligence.

Negligent activities range from failing to adhere to safety measures, such as using gas pressurization valves, to skipping regular maintenance. The workload on an oil platform demands that routine maintenance procedures be taken seriously. Sometimes, equipment is still used even if a report finds safety flaws. The financial pressures are often high, leading to carelessness that can lead to avoidable accidents. Companies often ignore safety terms to maximize the usability of the drill rig.
However, negligence isn’t the only cause of incidents involving oil rigs. Natural events such as gales and hurricanes can severely damage a rig. Many facilities are located well out to sea and cannot be easily secured, and it can be hard to evacuate workers while operations are ongoing.

Occupational Injuries Related to Oil and Gas Drilling

A 2010 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics noted there were 120 fatal injuries related to oil and gas extraction in 2008. Incidents involved fires and explosions and contact with objects and equipment, but transportation incidents made up 41 percent of fatal accidents. In 2007, there were 4,200 reported injuries in the sector. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the number of active offshore rigs from 2003 to 2010 decreased 63 percent, but annual fatalities remained stable. Statistically, the number of fatal incidents per facility increased. Many deaths involved drilling contractors and offshore workers who worked in construction, transportation, and warehousing.

Rig accidents, therefore, don’t have to involve people directly associated with oil and gas extraction.

Deadly Drill Rig Accidents

  • July 1988: Gas leakage caused an explosion on the offshore platform Piper Alpha, killing 167 people and destroying the entire facility, causing $1.4 billion in losses. Maintenance on a pressure safety valve was not complete that day, and communication errors contributed to staff turning on the pump when they shouldn’t have. Bringing the fire under control took nearly three weeks.
  • March 1980: A massive platform capsized off Scotland; the Alexander L. Kielland, operated by Phillips Petroleum, failed when high winds and waves caused a bracing to fail, leading to a cascade of events involving the rig’s five legs. Many of the 123-people killed, drowned.
  • February 1982: The Ocean Ranger capsized, leading to the deaths of 84 crew members; the mobile drilling rig weighed 25,000 tons and was designed to operate in 1,500 feet of water. A strong storm caused water to break a porthole window and flood the ballast control room. It wasn’t until two hours later that control problems were noticed.

Drill rig accidents can but not always be prevented. Occupational injuries and fatalities are more likely when proper maintenance procedures aren’t followed, although mechanical failures and weather-related issues often play a role.

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