Working offshore is dangerous in any season, but winter presents specific challenges. Lower temperatures, heavy weather, and rough seas can bring significant risks to a rig and all its crew members, from deckhands to engineers to the captain of the vessel. Understanding these–and what can be done to stay safe–can help offshore workers avoid harm when temperatures drop.
Here are five main reasons rig life is more dangerous in the winter:
1. Increased Chance of Cold Stress
When it is cold outside, offshore workers have a higher chance of experiencing cold stress. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines cold stress as injuries that occur when the body loses too much heat. Factors like wind chill and dampness, caused by weather, ocean water, or even sweat can cause the body to lose heat faster and in higher temperatures. Cold stress can occur even when temperatures are around 60 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on wind chill and dampness.
Types of cold stress include:
- Frostbite occurs when the extremities, such as the fingers, toes, nose, or earlobes, freeze from exposure to extreme cold. Offshore workers could experience frostbite from cold temperatures at sea, from water exposure, or from direct contact with frozen equipment or freezing metals. In very minor cases of frostbite, called frostnip, there is no permanent damage. In more serious cases, the skin and underlying tissue will die. Severe frostbite may require amputation of the affected body parts.
- Trench foot is caused by exposure to cold temperatures and damp conditions. Also called immersion foot, this condition occurs when the feet are exposed for long periods of time. When feet are wet, they lose heat about 25 times faster than when they are dry. Trench foot can occur in temperatures as high as 60 degrees Fahrenheit. It can be extremely painful, but it is treatable. If untreated, serious complications like ulcers, gangrene, and nerve damage can occur. Trench foot got its name during World War I when soldiers did not take measures to keep their feet warm and dry. An estimated 2,000 American soldiers and 75,000 British soldiers lost their lives because of trench foot during the war.
- Chilblains are another type of cold stress that offshore workers may face. Caused by the inflammation of small blood vessels in the hands and feet, chilblains are characterized by red patches, swelling, and blisters on the affected areas. They are treatable, but if they are left untreated and persist, they can lead to infection.
- Hypothermia occurs when one’s body temperature drops too low from exposure to the cold. Offshore workers may experience hypothermia if they fall overboard into cold water or are exposed to freezing or near-freezing temperatures outside. Normal body temperature is about 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, and when the body is exposed to the cold for too long, it will lose heat faster than it can produce it. Once the body temperature drops low enough (below 95 degrees Fahrenheit) the organs cannot function properly and will begin to shut down. Hypothermia will lead to heart failure, respiratory system failure, and death if untreated.
Cold stress injuries can be prevented in several ways. First, OSHA recommends that employers should train workers on the signs of cold stress and what to do if they or a fellow crew member begins experiencing these. Employers should also provide appropriate heating devices to make indoor and outdoor spaces safer for workers. They should limit the amount of time crew members spend on deck, exposed to the elements. They must also provide appropriate cold-weather gear and personal protective equipment (PPE) to workers depending on their job duties and whether they are exposed to cold temperatures and wet conditions.
2. Rough Seas & Heavy Weather
Working offshore in the winter can lead to severe seasickness when seas are rough for prolonged periods of time. Even an experienced seaman can start to experience chronic nausea and vomiting. Rough seas and heavy weather can also increase the chances of slip and fall accidents, falls overboard, and equipment malfunction. Another hazard related to heavy weather occurs when maritime employers fail to evacuate crews from offshore rigs in advance of a storm. When a winter storm strikes, it can cause damage to a vessel and may even cause it to tilt, capsize, or sink.
While nothing can be done to control the weather or the sea, offshore companies can take precautions to monitor the weather and move or evacuate rigs before a storm strikes. Decks, ladders, and stairs must be fitted with slip-resistant materials to help offshore workers keep their footing. Offshore rigs must have appropriate sick bays and medical personnel to help with chronic nausea, cold stress injuries, and other effects of winter temperatures and storms.
3. Cold Shock, Hypothermia & Drowning
Falls overboard are dangerous in any weather, but during the winter they are even more so. Water that is 59 degrees Fahrenheit or colder will present a risk of cold shock to any offshore worker who falls overboard. Cold shock causes the heart rate to increase dramatically, the blood pressure to rise, and a person to gasp and breathe quickly. It can seem impossible to swim, and the chances of inhaling water are high. Even a skilled swimmer can drown if they do not know how to deal with cold shock.
If an offshore worker falls overboard and gets past cold shock, the danger isn’t over. Cold water can cause the nerves and muscles in the arms and legs to gradually shut down, which can make it difficult to stay afloat after about 10 minutes. If they’ve been in the water for 20 to 30 minutes, hypothermia will start setting in. Even holding onto a floatation device may become impossible.
Every offshore rig should have clearly defined plans and appropriate equipment in place to address man overboard incidents. Crew members must be properly trained on what to do to alert others and how to render aid. Fast action must be taken to save anyone who falls overboard.
4. Equipment Malfunction & Frozen Piping
Winter weather can affect offshore rigs in various ways. Cold temperatures can affect sensors and instrumentation, giving faulty readings to rig operators. Water or other materials inside uninsulated piping can freeze and expand, causing leaks or cracks. Equipment failure can be caused by extreme cold or significant increases and decreases in outside temperatures. All of these things can cause catastrophic events like fires, leaks, blowouts, or explosions.
When offshore rigs operate in cold weather, they need to be prepared for low temperatures. The process of preparing a rig for winter is called winterizing, and it may involve a number of steps to protect pipes from freezing, instrumentation from failing, and equipment from malfunctioning in the cold. Offshore workers may face serious risks if rigs are not properly winterized or if they are not trained and educated on how to deal with potential equipment or piping problems caused by cold weather.
5. The Psychological Impact of Cold Weather
Winter can cause more than physical injuries. Cold weather and fewer daylight hours, plus days spent offshore in rough seas, can have a psychological impact on crews. Stress, fatigue, and depression have been linked to working in low temperatures and heavy weather.
Exercise, proper nutrition, and sleep can all improve the psychological impact of working in cold weather. Improved work schedules and a mental health support system for offshore crews can also help. Offshore employers must be mindful of all potential effects of working in inclement weather.
January: The Coldest Winter Month for Offshore Workers in the Gulf
The Gulf of Mexico contains the highest concentration of offshore oil rigs on the planet. Since 1942, approximately 6,000 structures have been installed. About 3,500 oil and gas structures remain; more than 3,200 of these are active today. The majority are located off the coast of Louisiana, followed by Texas, Alabama, and Mississippi.
The crews that operate these rigs face harsh conditions throughout the year. While the Atlantic hurricane season, which lasts from June 1 through November 30, presents significant weather-related dangers, temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico are typically the lowest in January. The water temperature in the Gulf of Mexico is also the lowest in January, ranging between 56°F to 67°F near U.S. shores.
Air and ocean temperatures, plus wind and rain, can have a tremendous impact on offshore workers in the Gulf of Mexico and across the planet. These hazards are not new, however. We know winter storms will come. We know that temperatures will drop and that offshore crews will face increased risks of cold stress injuries in January and all winter months.