If you make your living working on an offshore oil rig, you know it ranks among one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. The constant exposure to highly combustible materials, alongside the proximity of heavy equipment and slippery decks, means that the risk of serious and often life-threatening accidents is significantly higher compared to other occupations.
One of the major risk factors for oil rig workers that could potentially lead to fatal and non-fatal injuries is fatigue. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), individuals in this fieldwork in shifts that run for as many as 12 hours every day for up to two weeks, with no days off in between. It’s no surprise then that the slow reaction times that come with working long hours leave employees vulnerable to mishaps.
Regardless of what causes an oil rig accident, the real question is – Who is liable? Here’s everything you need to know.
Common Causes of Injuries on an Oil Rig
Federal law dictates that all employees have the right to work in a safe environment and under conditions that don’t endanger their well-being regardless of location.
Nonetheless, if you work on an oil rig, your risk for injuries is considerably higher compared to professionals working in other fields. Below are some of the most common causes of injuries on an oil rig.
Caught-Between, Caught-In, and Struck-By Hazards
Three in every five fatalities that occur on an oil rig are the result of caught-between, caught-in, and struck-by hazards. Accidents are more likely to occur when working around unguarded equipment and machines with moving parts; working under loads that are suspended mid-air; and working with spinning chains, elevators, tongs, casing, and pipes.
This is yet another common cause of injuries for individuals working on an offshore oil platform. Falls usually result from slips caused by oil or water on the oil platform itself or the equipment; or tripping over holes or machinery. In some cases, falls may result from improper use of ladders or not having proper guardrails installed for additional support.
It is the responsibility of maritime employers to ensure that they provide adequate training on fall prevention, in addition to installing personal fall arrest systems (PFAS), safety nets, guardrails, siding, and anti-skid deck plating for fall protection.
Sometimes, accidents may stem from energy hazards, which are quite common aboard oil rigs. The absence of grounding prongs, damage to extension cords, improper servicing of electrical equipment, failure to adhere to proper Lockout/Tagout (LOTO) and re-energizing procedures are all potential causes of electrocution on an oil drilling platform.
An oil rig explosion can be wildly catastrophic. Drilling platforms frequently have highly combustible materials traversing through them. If the fuel being ferried to and fro is not properly contained, or a vessel ends up striking the oil rig, an explosion might be inevitable.
Maritime employers have to ensure that all the necessary precautionary measures are taken to reduce the risk of an oil rig fire and provide safe working conditions for the employees at all times.
Caught-between, caught-in, and struck-by accidents often go hand-in-hand with heavy equipment hazards. The most notorious culprits in several heavy equipment injuries that occur on oil rigs are cranes. These enormous machines are capable of carrying extremely heavy loads.
Without proper and regular maintenance, or in the hands of inexperienced crane operators, this gigantic piece of machinery can be very dangerous. The most common injuries that result from heavy equipment on an oil rig include driving, overloading, and tipping accidents, as well as operator and mechanical errors.
Granted, a helicopter accident may not be the first cause that comes to mind when thinking of drilling rig accidents. Nonetheless, given the fact that it is the most common means of transporting oil rig workers to and fro between the offshore rig and base on land, it is not unusual to come across helicopter crashes from time to time.
Hazardous Weather Conditions
The offshore weather out at sea is vastly different from that onshore. The surges of ocean water, high-speed winds, and heavy rainfall brought on by storms can make the conditions on an oil rig extremely dangerous.
The weather can be so severe that oil rig workers have to evacuate the site several days ahead in anticipation of a treacherous storm. In some instances, however, some workers have to be left behind to ride out the storm and ensure the rig remains intact during such conditions.
Employees may end up getting struck by lightning, hit by objects blowing in the wind, slipping and falling on wet docks, or even getting pushed off the drilling platform into the rough ocean waters.
Deepwater Horizon What Happened
In the catastrophic 2010 BP oil rig explosion off the Gulf of Mexico coastline, the Deepwater Horizon sank, causing several injuries and fatalities among the employees working on the platform. A massive amount of oil spilled into the ocean, causing devastating effects on the marine life, wetlands, and small businesses in the vicinity.
Federal investigators found that the primary cause of the explosion was a malfunction of the cement located deep within the 18,000-foot-deep well. The cement was supposed to keep the gas and oil confined within the wellbore. As a result of the breakdown, natural gas shot onto the drilling platform under tremendous pressure, which ignited, causing the explosion.
The federal report compiled by a joint task force made up of the US Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement concluded that BP – the drilling company that owned the well – took several shortcuts to complete the Macondo well project. The report revealed that the company was tens of millions of dollars beyond budget and ran several weeks behind schedule.
Ultimately, BP was responsible for the accident. However, the company’s chief contractors, Halliburton and Transocean, were also found to be partially liable. Halliburton was the company contracted by BP to undertake the cementing operations, while Transocean was the owner of the mobile drilling rig.
Federal investigators further found that BP and its contractors violated several laws that required the companies to:
- Operate in a safe manner
- Conduct frequent and reliable tests to ensure that well pressures remain within the stipulated limits
- Notify federal regulators of any changes made to drilling plans
- Take the necessary containment measures to ensure that oil and gas do not get released into the environment
The damage caused by the explosion and subsequent oil spill was estimated at billions of dollars. Approximately five million barrels of oil spilled into the ocean polluting hundreds of miles of fish habitats, marshes, and beaches.
Who Is Liable In a Drilling Rig Accident?
Below is an overview of the various legal remedies available to oil rig explosion victims.
The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 – commonly referred to as the Jones Act – provides a comprehensive legal framework that offers protection to maritime employees who get injured at sea. The Jones Act provides a means through which injured seamen can sue their employers since they do not qualify for workers’ compensation under the provisions of maritime law.
Individuals covered by the Jones Act include crew members, officers, and captains, whose time spent working on a vessel out at sea accounts for more than 30 percent. Individuals working on an offshore oil rig are also considered seamen under the provisions of the act.
The law requires oil drilling companies to provide reasonably safe working environments for their employees. If an accident occurs aboard an oil rig platform, resulting in injuries or fatalities, the employer can be held liable if they are found to have been negligent.
Some examples of unsafe working conditions that may find an oil drilling company liable for any injuries or deaths that occur include:
- Absence of personal fall arrest systems (PFAS), safety nets, guardrails, siding, and anti-skid deck plating
- Failure to provide the workers with proper equipment
- Inadequate training of the oil rig workers
- Poor equipment maintenance
- Presence of water, oil, or other slippery substances on the drilling platform
- Assault by a fellow oil rig worker
Proving Liability Under the Jones Act
In conventional negligence claims, the burden of proof rests on the plaintiff to show, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant’s negligence was the direct cause of the accident in question. In legal terms, this is referred to as “proximate cause.”
The Jones Act works a little differently.
If you were injured while working on an offshore oil rig, the burden of proof rests on you showing that your employer’s negligence was the proximate cause of your injuries, only that in this case, the burden of proof is significantly lower than that of standard negligence cases.
To prove liability under the Jones Act, you’re only required to show that your employer’s negligence played a part – however small – in the injuries you sustained. Even if there were three other significant causes of your injuries, the provisions of the Act still allow you to recover damages from your employer.
This rule applies even in instances where the oil drilling company you work for was only responsible for one percent of the injuries you sustained. The Deepwater Horizon survivors were able to sue the company on these grounds.
Damages Under the Jones Act
To claim compensation for injuries you sustained in an oil rig accident, you’re entitled to seek the usual types of damages available to victims in standard personal injury cases. These include:
- Loss of earning capacity
- Loss of wages
- Mental anguish
- Pain and suffering
- Past, present, and future medical expenses
If you can prove that there was deliberate wrongdoing on the part of the oil drilling company, you may also be able to sue for punitive damages. Additionally, it is not unusual for some courts to award victims interest on their damages in addition to the settlement they receive.
Keep in mind, however, that time is of the essence when it comes to filing such suits. The statute of limitations is capped at three years from the date the injury occurred, so you’ll need to get in touch with an offshore accident lawyer as soon as possible to get the ball rolling.
Nuisance Complaints/Toxic Tort
The Deepwater Horizon explosion led to a massive oil spill that spread to the wetlands. Crude oil is a highly toxic substance that can have devastating effects on marine life, plants, wildlife, and even people.
The oil spill led to the contamination of food sources, the pollution of drinking wells, and even seeped into groundwater. The fumes from the explosion traveled many miles inland, causing a wide range of respiratory issues among people.
These are all examples of toxic tort claims that can be launched against drilling companies in oil rig accidents that result in oil spills.
The effects of an oil spill can have far-reaching repercussions on many businesses, particularly those in the fishing and tourist sectors. If you are a business owner whose enterprise has been affected by a drilling rig accident, you can file a lawsuit for the economic damages you suffered as a direct result of the spill.
Environmental and Regulatory Damages
In the Deepwater Horizon case, several environmental groups filed lawsuits against the federal government for the role it played in the drilling rig disaster. In one of the suits, the plaintiff alleged that the government had unlawfully allowed BP to drill in 6,000+ feet of water without conducting a worst-case and blow-out oil spill analysis.
When the government fails in its oversight and regulatory role to prevent such accidents from happening, it can be held liable in a civil suit.
Talk to an Experienced Attorney
If you find state and federal laws confusing, maritime law is a whole different beast. It may not always be clear who the at-fault party is. If you were injured in a drilling rig accident, get in touch with an offshore accident lawyer as soon as possible to help you seek the compensation you deserve.
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