Long Days, Dangerous Working Conditions, Poor Training Threaten Lives And Safety Of Oil And Gas Workers

A recent story in Forbes magazine rated oil rig and gas pipeline workers as having the worst job in America for 2010. The survey, conducted by CareerCast, considered five criteria before awarding the distinction to rig and pipeline roustabouts: the pay, work environment, stress, physical demands and hiring outlook.

Perhaps what makes oil rig and gas pipeline work truly difficult is the danger the workers face as a matter of course, day in and day out. These workers can put in 12 or more hours each day, operating or fixing heavy machinery, negotiating slippery surfaces and working on multiple platforms. Many of the workers are young and inexperienced, and not every employer takes the necessary time to properly train them. Moreover, the constant demand for oil and gas makes for a high-pressure work environment in which worker safety is not always the predominant concern.

When all of these factors are taken together, it is no surprise that workplace accidents for oil rig and gas pipeline workers have high injury and fatality rates. Some of the most common types of accidents in this line of work include:

  • Slips and falls
  • Machinery accidents, from malfunctions and human error
  • Explosions and fires
  • Injury or death caused by falling objects
  • Exposure to hazardous chemicals

These accidents can cause a host of serious personal injuries, including broken bones, skull fractures, brain injuries, amputations, burns and even death.

Legal Options Following an Oil Rig/Gas Pipeline Injury

Workers who are injured while working on an oil rig or gas pipeline may be able to recover compensation for their injuries from their employers under state or federal law, depending on the circumstances. Some of the legal claims that may be available include:

Jones Act Claim

The Jones Act allows seamen who are injured during the course of employment to recover compensation for their injuries from their employers. It also gives family members the right to bring a wrongful death claim against the employer when a seaman dies as a result of work on the vessel.

A “seaman” is defined broadly under the Act to include anyone whose work furthers the mission of a vessel in navigable waters. Workers on floating offshore oil rigs and jack-ups meet the definition of seamen under the Jones Act. “Employer” generally refers to the ship’s owner, who also may be held liable for the negligent acts of an officer, agent or other employee of the ship.

In order for an employer to be liable under the Jones Act, the employer’s negligence must be the legal cause of the seaman’s injury or death. Employers owe a duty to seamen to exercise reasonable care to prevent injury while they are working on the vessel. This includes taking reasonable steps to prevent foreseeable injury and providing employees with a safe working environment and equipment.

Seamen who have been injured by a negligent act of their employer are entitled to recovery under the Jones Act regardless of whether the injury occurred on or off the vessel, so long as the injury occurred within the scope of the seaman’s job duties.

Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation Act (LHWCA)

The LHWCA permits those who have been injured while working on or in connection with a vessel on a navigable U.S. waterway to recover compensation for their injuries from their employers. The Act generally is applicable to those who are engaged in maritime employment, including longshoremen, harbor workers, shipbuilders, ship repairers and ship breakers. “Navigable waterway” has been interpreted to also include adjoining areas, like piers, wharves and docks, routinely used in loading, unloading, repairing or building a vessel. Thus, workers who have been injured while employed to fix heavy machinery on a floating oil rig may qualify under the LHWCA.

The LHWCA was meant to provide coverage for those workers who would be excluded from the definition of seamen under the Jones Act. Unlike the Jones Act, the LHWCA is a workers’ compensation program, which means that a worker does not have to prove the employer’s negligence caused the worker’s injury.

Under the LHWCA, injured workers are entitled to payment of all reasonable and related medical expenses. They also are entitled to compensation for lost wages during the period they are unable to return to work. Generally, wages will be paid at a rate of 66.66% of the worker’s average weekly wage, subject to a federally imposed minimum and maximum weekly rate cap. Eligible injured workers also may be entitled to permanent impairment payment and vocational rehabilitation benefits.

Survivor benefits in case of death are paid to the spouse or other eligible surviving family members at a rate of 50% of the worker’s average weekly wage, until death or remarriage. If the deceased worker is survived by children, the survivor benefits are increased by an additional 16.66%.

Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA)

Those who have been injured while working on a fixed oil rig or offshore gas pipeline may be entitled to relief under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. The OCSLA provides compensation for those who have been injured or lost their lives while working on “operations conducted on the outer continental shelf (OCS) for the purpose of exploring for, developing, removing or transporting by pipeline the natural resources, or involving rights to the natural resources, of the subsoil and seabed of the OCS.”

The OCS is made up of any submerged lands that exist beyond state territorial waters but still within U.S. territorial waters, which generally is three miles out from the shore. Additionally, this includes any structures affixed to the OCS, like oil drilling platforms.

Workers who qualify under the OCSLA and are injured during the scope of their employment are entitled to the same compensation that is available under the LHWCA, including medical benefits, wage replacement and survivor benefits.

Contact an Attorney Today

Gas pipeline workers who are employed at an onshore location also are entitled to recover for their injuries under state law. Generally, this will mean filing a workers’ compensation claim for payment of their medical expenses and lost wages. If workers’ comp benefits are not available, the injured worker may be able to file a negligence claim against the responsible party, whether it is the employer or a third party.

Some employers in this dangerous line of work may be less than forthcoming about their legal obligations to injured employees. Do not accept your employer’s word as the law. For more information on your legal rights following an oil rig or gas pipeline accident or injury, contact an experienced attorney today.