Oil and Gas Industry Fatality Rate Seven Times Higher Than All U.S. Workers

Between 2003 and 2013, the U.S. oil and gas extraction industry experienced unprecedented growth, doubling the size of its workforce and increasing the number of drilling rigs by 71%. Fatality rates for workers in the oil and gas extraction industry have historically been higher than the rate for all workers (an average of seven times higher every year since 2003, when fatality rates for oil and gas workers were first added to the data collected). To describe fatal events among oil and gas workers during this period, the CDC analyzed data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), a comprehensive database of fatal work injuries.


During this period, the number of work-related fatalities in the oil and gas extraction industry increased 27.6%, with a total of 1,189 deaths. However, the annual occupational fatality rate significantly decreased 36.3% (p<0.05) during this 11-year period.


Two-thirds of all worker fatalities were attributed to transportation incidents (479, [40.3%]) and contact with objects/equipment (308 [25.9%]). More than 50% of persons fatally injured were employed by companies that service wells (615 [51.7%]). It is important for employers to consider measures such as land transportation safety policies and engineering controls (e.g., automated technologies) that would address these leading causes of death and reduce workers' exposure to hazards.


Publicly available data from CFOI were used to determine the number of fatal injuries to workers in the U.S. land-based and offshore oil and gas extraction industry from 2003 to 2013. CFOI collects information from multiple data sources to identify, verify, and describe fatal work injuries. According to CFOI, a fatal injury is considered work-related if (1) the event leading to the injury occurred while the employee was working and (2) the event is verified by at least two independent data sources. The North American Industry Classification System was used to identify fatal events among the three types of companies in the oil and gas extraction industry: oil and gas operators that control and manage leased areas, drilling contractors that drill the wells, and well-servicing companies that provide all other types of support operations that prepare a well for production and completion.


From 2003 to 2013, 1,189 oil and gas extraction industry employees died while working, resulting in an average of 108 deaths per year and an annual average occupational fatality rate of 25.0 deaths per 100,000 workers. The highest fatality rate occurred in 2006 (32.4 deaths per 100,000 workers) with 125 fatalities. During this period all but 10 decedents were male, and the largest numbers of deaths were to workers between the ages of 25 and 34 (331 [27.8%]). Most were non-Hispanic whites (844 [71.0%]). Two-thirds of the fatalities were attributed to transportation incidents (479 [40.3%]) and contact with objects/equipment (308 [25.9%]). Incidents on land (as opposed to air or water) made up 86.2% of the transportation events. The remainder of the most frequent events were the result of fires or explosions (170, [14.3%]); exposure to harmful substances or environments (105 [8.8%]); or falls, slips, and trips (97 [8.2%]). The largest number of fatalities occurred among workers employed by well-servicing companies (615), followed by drilling contractors (378), and operators (196). The highest fatality rate was among workers employed by drilling companies (44.6 per 100,000 workers), followed by well-servicing companies (27.9), and operators (11.6).


Although the oil and gas extraction industry's number of occupational fatalities increased 27.6% during the 11-year period, it did not increase as much as the number of workers, resulting in a significant decrease in the fatality rate of 36.3%. The average annual decrease was 4% per year. Oil and gas operators experienced the largest decrease in the rate of fatal injuries, 8% per year (p<0.01), followed by well-servicing companies (4% per year, p<0.05). Among event types, contact with objects/equipment experienced the greatest decrease, 9% per year (p<0.001); transportation events also showed a significant decrease, 3% per year (p<0.05).


Previous research found a positive correlation between the level of activity (number of active drilling rigs) and the occupational fatality rate in the U.S. oil and gas extraction industry. This report found that although the number of active drilling rigs increased by 71% and the number of oil and gas extraction workers more than doubled during 2003–2013, the industry's fatality rate significantly decreased.


Transportation events and contact with objects/equipment events were the most frequent fatal events in the oil and gas extraction industry, which is consistent with previously reported data. This analysis showed the rate of fatalities caused by contact with objects/equipment experienced the greatest decrease during 2003–2013 (p<0.001), which might be related to the increased use of automated technologies on drilling rigs such as hydraulic catwalks to move drill pipe from ground level to the rig floor and powered tongs used to make and break drilling pipe connections. A recent study found lower non-fatal injury rates on rigs with automated technologies designed to reduce workers' exposure to hazardous equipment. This report also found that the transportation-related fatality rate decreased significantly (p<0.05) despite an increase in the number of fatalities. Previous research showed the majority of transportation fatalities were the result of motor vehicle crashes killing occupants of light trucks (e.g., pickup trucks), which are largely unregulated. Transportation fatalities did not include deaths while commuting to and from work, as these are not typically considered work-related. However, frequent long distance commutes are common for workers in this industry and are an area of concern.


Collaboration between industry, government, and academic institutions might have contributed to improved safety for workers and likely should continue to drive the fatality rate further down. In 2003, the National Service, Transmission, Exploration and Production Safety Network was founded in South Texas by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and industry to share best practices in oil and gas safety and health. Since then, the organization has expanded to 22 independent networks serving 15 oil and gas producing states. Another group, the National Occupational Research Agenda Oil and Gas Extraction Sector Council, was created by the CDC in 2008 as a partnership program to establish an occupational safety and health research agenda. Since then, the council has created several safety products targeting high-risk workers and activities. In addition, regional groups, such as the Appalachian Shale Transportation Safety Workgroup, have formed to identify and share best practices in transportation safety.


Although the fatality rate in the oil and gas extraction industry remains an average of seven times higher than among U.S. workers in general (25.1 compared with 3.7 per 100,000 per year), the oil and gas extraction industry has achieved a substantial decrease in fatality rates in recent years. It is important for oil and gas industry employers to continue implementation of safety measures that target causes of the most frequent fatal events. One example is having a land transportation safety policy that outlines safety procedures for all workers who drive as a part of their duties. Another example is adoption of automated technologies that reduce workers' exposure to oil rig hazards. Occupational safety and health researchers need to continue and enhance surveillance efforts and identify risk factors for different types of fatal injuries among different sectors of the oil and gas extraction industry. The data from surveillance efforts will be useful to industry safety and health networks and can be used to create targeted interventions to reduce worker fatalities.


See the CDC Report


See the Medical Law Perspectives September 23, 2014, Blog: Heat Stress Kills Workers