Employees get injured on the job every day. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were nearly 3 million workplace-related illnesses and injuries reported in 2015, or a rate of 3 cases per 100,000 employees. Some jobs are naturally more hazardous than others, and the oil and gas industry is one of the nation’s most dangerous. The same report found that the rate of injury and illness among oil and gas workers was five times that of the general worker population, or 15 reported cases per 100,000. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 142 deaths in the oil industry in 2015, a 27% increase from the previous year.
Oil workers are prone to all manner of injury, due to the natural hazards of the job. But the most common types of injury are not what you might think. Here are the highlights:
Most oil workers are not killed in the field or on the rig itself, but on the highway. Over 300 oil and gas workers have been killed on the road in the past decade. One of them was Timothy Roth, who boarded a truck after a 17 hour shift with three coworkers to begin the long 4 hour commute home to West Virginia. Just ten minutes into their journey, the driver fell asleep, crashing the vehicle and killing Mr. Roth.
Stories like these are not uncommon, as workers are expected to pull long shifts hours away from their homes. Oil field employees are not subject to the regulations that keep truck drivers from working long shifts on the road, which pressures employees to make long commutes home after shifts that can be 20 hours or longer.
Oil companies use heavy machinery and hazardous equipment, which leads to workplace injury. Derricks, heavy lifts, hoists, drillers, and loading and unloading materials can all cause trauma or crush injuries. Additionally, machines used in drilling are loud and can cause hearing loss or even loss of balance when they disturb the inner ear. Operators must wear appropriate protective gear, such as earplugs and gloves while operating equipment.
Unfortunately, combining the hazardous equipment with long shifts and worker fatigue can be a recipe for disaster. Workers can suffer crush injury, dismemberment, or even death from being caught in pumps and compressors. Oil companies have a duty to follow OSHA regulations to minimize the risk of these types of injuries by checking their equipment often and making sure employees have proper safety gear and breaks.
Chemical exposure is common in the oil fields. The processes involved in drilling can release noxious chemicals into the work area. Most notably, oil refineries can release hydrofluoric acid, which can scar lungs and cause death by asphyxiation. It’s so noxious that it can permeate the skin and react with calcium deep within our bones.
Prolonged exposure to other chemicals in refineries and wells can lead to respiratory problems, brain injury, paralysis, leukemia, and other kinds of cancer.
In the short term, workers who are exposed to oil industry chemicals report headache, nausea, fatigues, eye irritation, and chemical burns. It’s essential to wear proper protection and respiratory masks when working both on the rig and in the refinery.
Oil workers can also be killed in fires and explosions, as oil is filled with highly combustible gasses. These accidents can happen with little warning, and are hard to prevent (though they are relatively rare). Employers must have a proper fire prevention plan in place, and take every precaution necessary to avoid a tragedy.