The work that offshore workers in the oil and gas industry perform is among the most important in modern society, but it’s not without its risks. As dangerous as it can be, these workers deserve to be protected. It’s up to the oil and gas companies to mitigate these risks and keep their employees safe.
In this blog, we will investigate five of the most common health hazards that offshore workers encounter and how their employers can make the workplace safer.
1. Musculoskeletal Disorders
Musculoskeletal disorders, or MSDs, are injuries that most often affect the back and shoulders, specifically impacting muscles, joints, tendons, or spinal discs. MSDs are highly likely to turn into chronic injuries if they are not caught or treated effectively soon enough. These injuries can impact any offshore worker, not just those performing obviously strenuous tasks.
The most common accidents that occur offshore are:
- Slips, trips, and falls
- Manual handling
- Hand tools
Together, these account for over 70% of offshore injuries, which can be prevented by performing a thorough examination of the tools and processes that are used.
Symptoms of MSDs may include:
If you experience any of these symptoms at the end of a long day performing offshore work, your employer may need to adjust the tools or tasks used to complete a job. Improving workplace safety is the most effective way to ensure a job gets done right and on time, all while ensuring workers are taken care of.
The term “manual handling” refers to any movement including lifting, lowering, pushing, pulling, or carrying. When performed incorrectly, too often, or with too heavy a load, these movements can cause serious injury.
Employers must determine how they can limit the negative effects of manual handling by minimizing damaging movements or, ideally, avoiding the risky movements altogether.
Offshore workers may develop musculoskeletal disorders due to poor workplace design, including equipment and tasks. Ergonomics-related injuries often occur when the equipment used for a task, or the steps of the task itself, do not take the worker into account.
Managing MSDs in the workplace requires understanding the limits of each individual worker and adjusting the work as necessary to minimize the associated risks. It’s especially important for employers to provide training and information on manual handling and ergonomics throughout a worker’s time on the job.
2. Hazardous Substances
Thousands of workers in the oil and gas industry are exposed to hazardous substances every day, which have the potential to cause injuries or disease that may lead to chronic conditions or even death.
Potential health effects of exposure to hazardous substances include:
- Skin cancer
To help mitigate these dangers, employers are responsible for performing regular risk assessment, exposure control, control monitoring, health surveillance, and provide sufficient training to workers.
3. Physical Hazards
The environment that offshore workers are subjected to can be dangerous to their health. From loud noises to asbestos or radiation exposure, employers must limit the risks aboard an offshore installation in order to protect their workers.
Offshore worksites are loud places, and the ramifications of noise exposure for workers are significant.
Offshore workers may suffer from auditory fatigue, which is an early symptom of noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). Although this can be temporary if the worker can leave the noisy environment, the constant loud noise of an offshore installation can often lead to permanent hearing loss or tinnitus.
Occupational noise-induced hearing loss, namely in the offshore oil and gas industry, can be prevented with appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), but especially with the use of engineering controls that limit sound exposure.
Offshore workers may be exposed to the damaging effects of hand-arm vibration or whole-body vibration while on the job. Both of these have the potential to cause long-term painful damage. It’s the responsibility of employers to ensure that their workers’ exposure to vibration is avoided as much as possible.
Hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS) is most often diagnosed after use of handheld power tools. This preventable health risk can cause painful disorders to the blood vessels, nerves, and joints in the hands and arms of offshore workers. The damage done is permanent and can severely limit a worker’s ability to perform fine motor skills.
Whole-body vibration (WBV) is a common cause of severe back pain in offshore workers and is often diagnosed after operation of vibrating machines and vehicles.
Similar to buildings on land, offshore installations built before 1999 may contain asbestos-containing materials (ACMs). The maintenance required to upkeep this older infrastructure increases asbestos exposure potential for offshore workers, which in turn increases their risk of developing cancers such as mesothelioma.
ACMs that may be found in offshore installations include:
- Braking linings
- External sheeting
- Arc shields
There are two different types of radiation that offshore workers may be exposed to: ionizing radiation and non-ionizing radiation. While ionizing radiation carries more energy than non-ionizing radiation, both have the potential to cause harm to a person.
Ionizing radiation can occur naturally as radon gas and be produced artificially. It is found in electromagnetic rays, such as X-rays or gamma rays, or in alpha or beta particles. Offshore workers may be exposed to ionizing radiation as part of their duties in oil and gas production, as underground oil and gas reservoirs tend to emit higher levels of radiation than their above-ground counterparts.
Ionizing radiation exposure is connected to several health risks, including:
- Hair loss
- Skin burns
- Birth defects
Non-ionizing radiation covers two main regions of the electromagnetic spectrum: optical radiation (ultraviolet, or UV) and electromagnetic fields (EMFs), such as power frequencies, radio frequencies, and microwaves. Although non-ionizing radiation is less damaging than ionizing radiation, it can heat substances and can therefore damage tissue.
4. Biological Hazards
Food and water safety standards aboard an offshore worksite are an integral part of keeping the crew healthy and safe from foodborne illness or diseases associated with contaminated water.
Foodborne illnesses present a significant risk to offshore installations, especially because any virus that causes food poisoning is not only transmissible from water, shellfish, or vegetables, but also from person to person.
Potential side effects of food poisoning include:
- Kidney failure
Potable water plays one of the most important roles in maintaining a healthy worksite; it’s used for everything from drinking to cooking, laundry, personal hygiene, and medical uses. Employers must ensure that all potable water intended for offshore use is disinfected and tested for physical, chemical, and bacteriological risks.
5. Psychosocial Hazards
The negative effects of dangerous or difficult work are not all physical. Offshore workers may be impacted by the psychosocial hazards of working in a confined space as well as a stressful environment.
Working in a challenging environment such as an offshore installation can be incredibly stressful. What causes stress can vary; a worker’s experience, skill, age, or disability can impact their stress level.
The six most common causes of work-related stress are:
There are several options for workers who are suffering from the effects of stress. While the worker’s manager is the first line of defense, they may be among the factors causing the stress, and therefore the worker may choose to approach several other personnel who are there to help.
Offshore workers may approach several personnel to help with stress:
- Trade union representative
- HR department
- Worker assistance program or counseling
Protecting Offshore Workers
At Arnold & Itkin, we understand the importance of what offshore workers do, and we fight for their rights to have a safe workplace every day. If you have suffered from any of these health hazards, don’t hesitate to contact our offshore injury lawyers today.