Working offshore is dangerous in any season, but winter presents specific challenges. Understanding these – and what can be done to stay safe – can help you 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.
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. Decks, ladders, and stairs must be fitted with slip-resistant materials to help offshore workers keep their footing. 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.
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. Fast action must be taken to save anyone who falls overboard.
4. Equipment Malfunction & Frozen Piping
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.
Offshore Companies Must Protect Rig Workers in the Winter
Offshore companies must take the right steps to protect workers from the dangers of rig life in the winter. This includes properly winterizing rigs, evacuating crews or altering course to avoid serious storms, shortening outdoor shifts, providing the right cold-weather gear, and offering nutritious food and plenty of water to avoid malnutrition and dehydration. Every hazard can be prevented when companies take proper care.
Injured Offshore? Contact Arnold & Itkin
When maritime employers cut corners with winter safety, they should be held accountable. Putting profits over safety can have disastrous effects, and workers are the ones who suffer the consequences. At Arnold & Itkin, we have a reputation as leading offshore injury lawyers for good reason. We have handled some of the biggest maritime cases in history, such as representing one-third of the Deepwater Horizon crew and three widows of El Faro seamen who were lost in Hurricane Joaquin. We find answers and hold big companies accountable for their wrongdoing, all while helping people win recoveries that help them put their lives back on track. In all, we’ve won more than $10 billion for our clients.
Take this opportunity to find out how we can help you by calling (888) 493-1629 today.