Fatal Injuries in Offshore Oil and Gas Operations Are Seven Times Higher Than for All U.S. Workers

The oil and gas extraction industry has an elevated occupational fatality rate that is consistently among the highest of any U.S. industry. The causes of the most frequent fatalities among onshore oil and gas extraction workers are well known (transportation events; discussed below). During 2003 to 2010, the U.S. oil and gas extraction industry (onshore and offshore, combined) had a collective fatality rate seven times higher than for all U.S. workers (27.1 versus 3.8 deaths per 100,000 workers).


Catastrophic events like the Deepwater Horizon explosion, when 11 lives were lost, attract intense media attention but do not account for the majority of work-related fatalities during offshore operations. To identify risk factors to offshore oil and gas extraction workers, the CDC analyzed data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), a comprehensive database of fatal work injuries, for the period 2003 to 2010.

This report describes the results of that analysis, which found that 128 fatalities in activities related to offshore oil and gas operations occurred during this period. Transportation events were the leading cause (65 [51%]); A total of 49 (75%) transportation fatalities were associated with helicopters.


Seventeen helicopter events occurred. Eleven of these resulted in 43 (88%) of the fatalities. CFOI narratives noted that mechanical failure or loss of engine power was associated with five events (eight fatalities), and bad weather played a role in three of the events (seven fatalities). In five events, a total of nine fatalities involved occupants who survived the initial impact but later drowned. All of the helicopter events occurred in Gulf of Mexico offshore operations.


All decedents were male with a mean age of 41.4 years. The majority were non-Hispanic whites (101 [79%]). Despite a 63% decrease in the number of active offshore drilling rigs during 2003 to 2010, the number of annual fatalities during offshore operations remained stable, resulting in a statistically significant increase in the number of fatalities per rig.


Other causes of death were by contact with objects or equipment (21 [16%]), fires and explosions (17 [13%]), and exposure to harmful substances/environments (16 [13%]). Two thirds of the fatalities involved workers employed in the oil and gas extraction industry (87 [68%]). Of those, half involved workers employed by well servicing companies (43 [49%]), followed by drilling contractors (26 [30%]), and oil and gas operators (18 [21%]). The remainder involved workers in offshore oil and gas operations who were classified as employees in another industry, including transportation and warehousing (23 [18%]), construction (10 [8%]), and all other industries (eight [6%]).


The International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (OGP) has developed guidelines for aircraft operations in the oil and gas industry that exceed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety regulations. According to the OGP guidelines, pilots and passengers should complete helicopter underwater escape training and wear life jackets during flights over water. Floatation gear fitted to the helicopter should automatically inflate on impact with water and be capable of supporting the helicopter on the surface of the water. Companies should provide personal locator beacons for pilots, passengers, and life rafts. Life rafts should be externally mounted on the helicopters. When appropriate, engine and vibration monitoring equipment should be installed to detect incipient failure.


To increase pilots' situational awareness and improve safety, the FAA worked with the oil and gas industry and aircraft operators in the Gulf of Mexico to implement Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) technology, which uses satellites to transmit information to air traffic controllers and to other aircraft equipped with ADS-B avionics. This technology provides flight tracking, improved communications capabilities, enhanced weather information, and terrain and traffic information. Before the implementation of this technology, radar coverage did not pick up low-flying aircraft and traditional radio communications had limited capability, and therefore were not effective in warning pilots of rapidly changing weather conditions. Since late 2009, when ADS-B was implemented in the Gulf of Mexico, no weather-related fatal helicopter crashes during oil and gas operations have occurred as of the end of 2012


In summary, during 2003 to 2010, a total of 128 fatalities occurred in activities related to offshore oil and gas operations in the United States, an average of 16 per year. All but one fatality occurred in Gulf of Mexico operations. To reduce fatalities in the offshore oil and gas industry, employers should ensure that the most stringent applicable transportation safety guidelines are followed.


See the CDC Report