Occupational Fatalities from Falls in Oil and Gas Extraction Industry

On April 28, 2017, the CDC published a report that found that, between 2003 and 2013, fatality rates for oil and gas extraction workers decreased for all causes of death except those associated with fall events, which increased two percent annually.


To better understand risk factors for these events, the CDC examined fatal fall events in the oil and gas extraction industry between 2005 and 2014 using data from case investigations conducted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Sixty-three fatal falls were identified, accounting for 15% of all fatal events. Among fatal falls, 33 (52%) workers fell from a height of over 30 feet (9 meters), and 22 (35%) fell from the derrick board, the elevated work platform located in the derrick (a structure used to support machinery on a drilling rig). Fall fatalities occurred most frequently when drilling rigs were being assembled or disassembled at the well site (rigging up or rigging down) (14; 22%) or when workers were removing or inserting drill pipe into the wellbore (14; 22%). This analysis found slightly decreasing rates of fatal falls between 2005 and 2014. While the decreasing rates suggest that safety might be improving, the findings also indicate that implementation of additional interventions could prevent deaths from falls.


Rigging up and rigging down were identified as particularly hazardous activities. One reason for this might be the opportunity for miscommunication associated with the simultaneous movements of large equipment, vehicles, and workers that occur during these activities. Measures that target workers engaged in assembling and disassembling drilling rigs (rigging up and rigging down) could reduce falls in this industry. Companies should annually update their fall protection plans and ensure effective fall prevention programs are in place for workers at highest risk for falls, including providing trainings on proper use, fit, and inspection of personal protective equipment.


Sixty-three oil and gas extraction workers died as the result of a fall between 2005 and 2014, (average = 6.3 fatalities per year). Fall fatality rates declined an average of 6.3% per year (incidence rate ratio = 0.937) during this time, but were not statistically significant (p = 0.138). Among 61 (97%) fall-associated deaths in which the sex of the victim was known, all were male. The average age of victims was 36 years (range = 21–76 years).


The occupation most commonly involved in a fatal fall was derrickman, who work up to 90 feet (27 meters) above the rig floor on the derrick board, and handle pipe. A derrickman’s work is physically demanding, repetitive, and requires a great deal of concentration. Without proper safeguards, one misstep can result in a fatal fall. Among the three types of companies, drilling contractor workers experienced both the largest proportion of fatal fall injuries (38; 60%) and the highest fall-associated fatality rate (4.5 deaths per 100,000 workers). Twenty-four fatal fall injuries (38%) occurred among well-servicing company workers (1.1 per 100,000 workers), and only one worker death resulting from a fall occurred among oil and gas operators. Texas accounted for the largest number of fall fatalities (26; 41%), followed by Oklahoma (7; 11%) and Wyoming (6; 10%).


Fall protection equipment was required for the work being done by 54 (86%) of the 63 workers involved in fatal fall events. However, in 30 (56%) of these cases, the workers were either not using the equipment (7) or it was not determined whether they were using the required equipment (23). Among the 24 fatally injured workers who were wearing personal fall protection equipment, 15 (63%) were not properly attached to an anchor; two (8%) were not wearing a properly fitted harness; and seven (29%) were wearing the proper harness and were attached to an anchor, but the equipment failed because a retractable lifeline broke (4), a rope broke (1), the climbing assist device failed (1), or the tool ring pulled out of the harness stitching (1).


In several of these cases, a visual or verbal check between the driller and the derrickman before drilling operations began might have prevented the fall. This check would ensure that the derrickman remembers to connect his fall protection harness to both his self-retracting lifeline and a restraint system on the derrick board. Workers must also be fitted for the proper size harness and trained in proper donning of their personal fall protection equipment. Fall protection equipment should be checked daily, and equipment that is worn, heavily soiled, or damaged should be removed from service and destroyed to prevent future use. The NIOSH rig check form for harnesses and lanyards can be used to ensure inspection is thorough and that only undamaged fall protection equipment is available for use.


Measures in fall prevention should target derrickmen and workers engaged in rigging up and rigging down activities. Employers should first consider how to eliminate or control fall hazards using engineering controls such as automated rig technologies that allow drill pipe to be handled from the rig floor, thereby eliminating the need to work from the derrick board. Where engineering controls are not feasible, administrative controls can be implemented to ensure that derrickmen and other workers remember to anchor themselves while working at heights. Finally, training in the proper use and fit of personal protective equipment can protect workers from falls. A fall protection plan containing these processes should be available and understandable to workers, and able to be repeated by workers. The use of existing training tools and ongoing job safety analysis should be completed and shared across companies to improve hazard identification and control during rigging up and rigging down activities. In addition, training for self-rescue and rescue of fellow workers who have fallen and are suspended in the air by fall protection equipment should be written into the workplace hazard control program along with emergency response planning. Companies should ensure that plans are implemented on work sites. The oil and gas extraction industry has experienced a decline in the overall rate of fatalities. However, eliminating the need to work at height, training on how to identify and reduce the hazards of working at height, and proper use, fit, and inspections of personal protective equipment are essential in reducing fatal falls in this industry.


See the CDC Report