4 of the Worst Offshore Accidents in History

offshore accidents

Oil rig accidents happen more frequently than we may care to admit, yielding various levels of destruction. While truly catastrophic accidents may not be nearly as common, they have lasting effects on workers and the environment.

Below we cover four of the worst offshore accidents in recent maritime history and their contributing factors.

1. Devastating Piper Alpha Offshore

The Piper Alpha disaster in the North Sea is commonly identified as the most catastrophic offshore accident to date. What makes it more tragic is that poor communication was likely the reason the situation became so dire.

The NASA Safety Center reports the accident occurred on July 6, 1988, after a shift change. The day shift had begun to perform routine maintenance. During this maintenance, they replaced a safety valve with a temporary, hand-tightened one. The worker was unable to complete the task prior to the shift change and left the temporary valve. They completed the appropriate documentation to communicate that the pump was unsafe to operate. However, it was not in the permit binder where workers checked.

This missing permit led the workers to believe that pump A was safe to operate when they discovered a problem with pump B. The pump immediately sent warning signals, and workers evacuated the control room shortly after. Platform-wide evacuation orders were not given, and the operators were unsure of their authority to stop production, so it continued, further feeding the flames created in the initial fire.

This continued fuel meant that rescue efforts were unsuccessful. These failures resulted in the deaths of 167 crew and rescue members, leaving only 61 survivors from the initial crew.

Contributing Factors to This Accident

The NASA Safety Center report referenced above stated that there were some reported safety concerns prior to this incident regarding the shutdown of the fire suppression system. These concerns suggested the fire suppression system could remain automated while workers were not near the intakes. Occidental management had reported concerns about the diameter of the gas pipeline. Specifically, in the case of an emergency, they were concerned that a fire would be too difficult to put out given the volume of gas being fed into the area. Overall, this accident caused $3.4 billion in damages.

2. Alexander L Keilland Offshore Accident

semi submersible platformAnother tragedy of the 1980s, the Alexander L Keilland, was a Norwegian Semi-Submersible Platform that capsized on March 27, 1980, when a storm took out support leg D6. In response to the first Mayday call from the Alexander L Keilland disaster, rescue efforts from multiple agencies were quickly sent. In total, Offshore Technology reports that only 89 people of the 212 on the platform survived, leaving 123 dead.

The Alexander L Keilland offshore accident remains one of the worst industrial accidents for Norway, as indicated in the Offshore Technology article above. The Journal of Petroleum Technology cites the Director General of the Petroleum Safety Authority of Norway discussing the lasting changes resulting from the accident, including reorganization and condensation of safety committees and agencies. In the more immediate aftermath of the accident, these changes included redefining who is responsible for employee safety when working on the oil rigs and how communication will be handled.

Contributing Factors to This Accident

The Rescue Coordination Center in Norway released a report detailing efforts and barriers, including poor or miscommunication regarding the situation. In an issue of the Journal of Energy Resources Technology, an investigation of the Alexander L Keilland failure reported that the Inquiry Commission found fatigue fractures in the weld joint to the support leg.

The investigation had discussions on how this could have happened, ranging from a crack missed in routine inspections and maintenance to structural deficits in the other supports. However, it was unable to confirm any of these. They ultimately determined that the design fatigue life of the bracing was insufficient.

3. Deepwater Horizon

offshore workerThe Deepwater Horizon incident is part of our more recent history in the last 15 or so years. This particular offshore accident caused a lower loss of life than the other two mentioned, but the environmental impact was, and continues to be, catastrophic. The Environmental Protection Agency states that the Deepwater Horizon incident is the largest oil spill in the history of marine drilling operations. This spill caused four million barrels of oil to spill into the Gulf of Mexico.

There are many reasons cited for the April 20, 2010 explosion that claimed 11 lives. B.P. has released a report on the causes of the Gulf of Mexico tragedy, stating that responsibility falls on multiple parties involved. The statement released also reports that the company accepted all safety suggestions for operations moving forward.

Contributing Factors to This Accident

Some of the reasons provided for the explosion are:

  • The cement slurry that was used was not adequate to control the hydrocarbons and allowed gas and liquid to flow back up.
  • The results of the negative pressure tests were inaccurately interpreted or accepted by B.P.
  • The crew failed to notice and act on the influx of hydrocarbons.
  • The crew diverted the flow to the engine rooms instead of off of the rig.
  • The rig did not prevent the flow of gas into the engine room, which increased the risk of ignition.
  • After the oil rig explosion, there should have been an additional failsafe to seal the well automatically, but that did not function properly, likely due to damage.

4. C.P. Baker Drilling Barge

The C.P. Baker drilling barge sank on June 30, 1964. The United States Coast Guard report details that the barge hit a pocket of gas before protections could be put into place, causing a blowout. This gas mixture ignited, presumably from the sparking of the exhaust from the engine. This accident took 22 lives and resulted in the complete sinking of the barge.

The Coast Guard report states that the first indication of a problem was a bubbling or shooting action of the water between the hulls of the ship. Witness statements indicate that the ship trembled, and water was able to get into the hull from the open doors on the deck. There was an explosion shortly after, and many of the crew evacuated the ship by jumping overboard.

After an investigation into the maritime accident, it was determined that the crew was abiding by appropriate guidelines for the time. This fact highlighted some policy areas needing improvement. This additional scrutiny prompted some adjustments to safe practice, including having quick-acting, water-tight doors installed on the main deck, effectively preventing water from flooding the hull.

Offshore Accident Statistics

Offshore drilling is a complicated process with countless places for error. Many times, disasters are a result of several failures, whether they be mechanical or human error. The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) provides annual data on offshore incidents going back as far as 2007.

While the numbers below may change after any pending investigations close, these are the findings for the most recent reporting year:

  • Fatalities:1
  • Injuries:199
  • Lifting:333
  • Fires:126
  • Explosions:1
  • Musters:128
  • Gas releases:57
  • Collisions:6
  • Loss of well control: 5
  • Spills:17

With the exception of 2010, the number of fatalities reported has remained relatively low, less than ten per year. In 2017, there were no fatalities and only 154 injuries. The Code of Federal Regulations states that injuries must be reported if they result in evacuation from the facility, require time off work or a change of job duties, or restrict the person from immediately returning to their daily activities.

While oil and gas extraction (OGE) employees make up a small number of American workers, they are frequently overrepresented in workplace injury reports. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that Texas had the highest number of severe injuries reported by OGE workers among reporting jurisdictions. Texas reported 1,134 severe injuries from offshore incidents, which comprised 54% of the total injuries in the study.

After an Offshore Accident

Recovering from an offshore accident can be an arduous task that may require a significant amount of time, energy, and money. The aftermath may leave you physically injured or disabled, as well as suffering emotionally. If someone else’s negligence caused this, you shouldn’t be held responsible for recovering without compensation from those parties.

Many of these accidents resulted in class action lawsuits against the companies that owned them, resulting in millions of dollars of compensation awarded to the injured parties. The maritime attorneys at Dax F. Garza, P.C. can provide support and guidance regarding your injuries from an offshore accident. Contact us to schedule a free initial consultation to examine your legal options today.

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