Workers in pursuit of oil and natural gas in the Gulf of Mexico have been dying in accidents at the rate of one every 45 days since the mid-1990s.
ORLANDO, Fla. — Workers in pursuit of oil and natural gas in the Gulf of Mexico have been dying in accidents at the rate of one every 45 days since the mid-1990s.
The petroleum industry regards the toll as tragic for individuals but a small percentage of the total work force and a statistic that’s likely to improve.
“We definitely want everybody who goes offshore to return back, after their hitch is over, back to their families,” Mike Saucier, a U.S. Minerals Management Service (MMS) offshore supervisor in New Orleans, said early this month. “It is unfortunate we do see some fatalities and injuries that occur, but I feel confident that both MMS and industry are working toward trying to reduce it, especially fatalities, trying to reduce it to zero.”
The drilling industry’s ability to operate safely, however, suddenly was cast in doubt last week when an enormous blaze swept a Gulf rig working for oil giant BP. Of 126 on board the Deepwater Horizon, 11 are missing and presumed dead and 17 were injured, four critically. The vessel sank Thursday, Earth Day, and its well is leaking an estimated 42,000 gallons of crude oil a day.
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“This is the nightmare scenario that we supporters of offshore oil and gas development dreaded and worked so hard to prevent,” Elmer “Bud” Danenberger, recently retired chief of offshore regulatory programs for MMS, wrote on his blog, Bud’s Offshore Energy.
“Is the challenge of drilling deep beneath the Earth from a floating facility in thousands of feet of water too great to achieve the level of perfection that is necessary and expected? I don’t think so, but we clearly have a lot of soul searching to do,” wrote Danenberger, of Reston, Va.
The cause of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and fire could turn out to have similarities with what unleashed an Australian blowout that spewed oil into the sea for 10 weeks last year. In that incident, downplayed by Florida drilling advocates as the result of a foreign country’s inferior capabilities, workers apparently failed to correctly pump cement into a well as part of the plumbing that controls crude oil and natural gas.
Among the worst U.S. disasters, a rig 80 miles off the Louisiana coast suffered a blowout that resulted in 21 deaths in 1964. Seven workers died in 1989 when a natural-gas platform exploded. A helicopter carrying workers to a Shell rig crashed last year, killing eight.
But the majority of fatalities in the past 20 years — the industry’s modern era of safety — have occurred in isolated accidents.
Oil-field work, including both offshore and on land, isn’t nearly as risky as commercial fishing and is somewhat less dangerous than coal mining, according to federal statistics on fatalities per hours worked. But the more than 30,000 workers in the Gulf aren’t nearly the safest among the world’s offshore work forces.
Norwegian offshore drillers keep as many as 9,000 workers on duty in waters that include the treacherous North Sea. Six deaths were reported from 1999 through 2008, none during five years of that period.
An offshore rig is part factory, part oceangoing vessel and part warrior doing battle with the tremendous forces of oil-field geology. Rigs bore miles deep into Earth’s crust to pierce what can turn out to be a poisonous, corrosive, high-pressure pocket of petroleum.
The work takes place on structures towering hundreds of feet above the water, with tons of iron pipe and steel cable swinging overhead. Powerful engines and rigging can hoist 1 million pounds of well pipe at a time.
Fatal accidents, according to MMS records, often are sudden and violent but also occur amid an extraordinary variety of circumstances, including fires or explosions that occur at a rate of twice a week.
In 2006, a diver making an inspection was snagged by a manta ray and dragged to the surface, where he died from rapid decompression. Two years ago, a welder cutting a hole in a rig floor to insert a pipe essentially removed metal from underneath himself and fell 50 feet to his death.
In January, a rig within sight of shore caught fire at night. Richard Frank, 34, was among three workers on the platform.
“He knew the danger — everybody here knows the danger of working offshore,” said his mother, Cathy Richard, who had taken comfort that her son’s rig was within swimming distance of a coastal highway. “If anything happened, we knew he could make it back to shore.”
But he wound up in Gulf waters chilled by an especially cold winter.
“It was hypothermia,” his mother said. “He was left in the water too long.”
Henry Woods, owner of Trident Marine Safety Associates in Houston, which investigates marine accidents, said he doubts the industry’s slow but steady death toll will let up.
“There are just so many inherently dangerous jobs in the oil field,” Woods said. “I think there always will be fatalities and injuries, and spills and explosions.”
In the 1970s and 1980s, operators of drilling rigs put up posters of “Rufus the Roughneck,” a cartoon worker explaining how to avoid danger. Ensuring safety has become much more sophisticated since then.
Transocean, owner of the Deepwater Horizon, has required workers to put colored dots on their hard hats that, based on psychological tests, indicate personality types, as a way to persuade workers to communicate better during emergencies.
Saucier of MMS said rig workers increasingly have unquestioned authority to stop work if they think conditions are hazardous. Rigs with highly mechanized equipment also are on the rise, he said.
“Some of the new drilling rigs, they are basically operating and doing the drilling by controlling a joy stick and not having to physically be right there with the metal,” Saucier said.
Terry Cunningham, a rig veteran who regularly works for BP as a safety supervisor, said the industry’s requirements have become intense and often redundant.
“Probably 90 percent of people on rigs would say it has gone overboard,” Cunningham said a few days before the Deepwater Horizon disappeared into the Gulf. “I don’t think we are there yet.”