Falls from a height are one of the leading causes of death and major injury in many industries, including the oil and gas sector.
Some tasks involve working at height on a daily basis and are oftentimes performed in harsh weather conditions, or in awkward and cramped positions increasing the risk of falls.
For instance, working on drilling rigs and oil and gas plants, either located onshore or offshore, have a significant number of tasks involving working at height. Workers are expected to climb on derrick ladders that are 30 to 100ft high or use scaffolding platforms, mobile elevating access platforms, or caged ladders to access a specific vessel or structure. Such tasks present a range of hazards, from dropping objects to workers falling to lower levels, or the entanglement of fall protection devices in moving machinery, in addition to exposure to heat, cold weather, and psychological stress.
According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), working at height “means work in any place where, if there were no precautions in place, a person could fall a distance liable to cause personal injury (for example a fall through a fragile roof down an unprotected lift shaft, stairwells, etc.)”
This article aims to stipulate existing statistics in relation to work at height incidents in the oil and gas sector; define the best approaches to risk management, while understanding that different regulators and professional bodies have their own definition of working at height; and finally describe the main issues that should be included in a company’s fall protection plan, such as risk assessment, training, rescue arrangements, selection of equipment, and supervision.
Statistics from professional bodies and regulators clearly reflect the importance of managing risks associated with working at height. According to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) reports in 2019, oil and gas workers have the highest rate of fall-related accidents, with a reported 148.9 severe injuries per 100,000 workers.
Based on the International Association of Drilling Contractors’ annual report, out of 39 lost time incidents that occurred on drilling rigs in Middle Eastern regions in 2019, around 35% have been related to fall incidents. According to the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (IOGP), 12.4% of lost workday cases in 2020 were related to working at height, and falls from a height were the cause of 10% of fatal cases between 2016-2020 in IOGP members.
“past incidents and high injury risks indicate that fall protection is a serious issue in the oil and gas sector”
The UK Health and Safety Executive’s statistic report also indicates that only six fatalities have been recorded in the UK offshore oil and gas sector in the last 10 years. However, two of them have been related to falls from a height, and between 2012-2019, work at height was attributed to 67 major injuries and lost time incidents.
Despite a large number of fall incidents and their severities, the literature review indicates that there is a lack of adequate research on fall incidents in the oil and gas sector. The majority of existing data is so generic and trend analysis is not available to find the key areas where most fatal cases are occurring, or which activities should be the centre of attention. A review of past incidents indicates that entanglement of workers’ fall arresting equipment caused numerous fatalities and major injuries on drilling rigs. Research conducted by The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicated that between 2005 and 2014, 63 workers died due to falls from a height in oil and gas drilling and well service companies, in the United States, while 30% of those fatalities occurred during rig up/rig down processes or during drill pipe trip in/trip out activities.