Severe Weather & Offshore Injuries: What Are the Risks?
December 14, 2021 @ 4:48 pm
With safety regulations constantly in flux and ocean temperatures steadily rising, offshore injuries caused by weather are a constant—and likely increasing—danger for workers. Even under optimal operating conditions, offshore workers labor aboard complex, expensive, heavy industrial vessels, rigs and platforms dedicated to extracting, transporting or refining hazardous materials that can be flammable, explosive and even poisonous. Working at the mercy of a harsh, changeable natural environment makes it even more dangerous.
Extreme weather represents a risk for everyone involved, from company owners who stand to lose millions of dollars due to losses of assets and resources, repairs and salvage operations, and delays and downtime to workers who literally place their lives on the line to do their job.
Explore some of the most dangerous situations workers face offshore and the potential risks that come along with them:
The Beaufort Wind Scale originated as a way for sailors to estimate wind strength visually. With its categories of a calm zero through hurricane 12, it’s still used today and describes the visible effects of wind on both sea and land for each category. For offshore work, it offers vivid insight into the challenges workers on a platform face even from light winds:
- At force 4, wind is a moderate breeze of 11-16 knots or 13-16 mph. Seas have actual small waves with frequent white crests. On land, it would raise dust and loose paper and move small branches.
- At force 6, wind is a strong breeze of 22-27 knots or 25-31 mph. Large waves form, and white foam crests are everywhere. On land, large tree branches would be in motion, wires may whistle, and umbrellas would be difficult to use.
- At force 7, wind is a near gale of 28-33 knots or 32-35 mph. Seas “heap up,” and white foam breaks from waves to blow in streaks with the wind. On land, whole trees would be moving, and walking against the wind becomes difficult.
- At force 9, wind is a severe gale of 41-47 knots or 47-54 mph. Waves are high, with crests toppling, tumbling and rolling over. Dense streaks of foam move with the wind, and spray affects visibility. On land, force 9 winds can remove roof slates and begin to cause structural damage.
- Wind forces 10, 11 and 12 represent storms, tropical storms and hurricanes, respectively. On land, they uproot trees and cause considerable widespread structural damage and destruction. At sea, they cause extremely high waves with overhanging crests. Seas become white with dense patches and streaks of foam, and air is full of foam and spray.
Add to this the concept of fetch—the distance that wind blows across open water—and wave size can grow. In fact, the longer the stretch of open water traveled, the greater the effect a certain force of wind may create. So, while wind may be officially a force 4 or 5 for example, over distance it may carry an increased impact.
How the wind hits a rig or platform matters, too. For example, in an interview with Bloomberg, DTN’s senior vice president for weather pointed out that while a rig might withstand 80-mph winds if it’s facing into “the tempest,” a 35-mph wind striking from the side might cause considerable damage.
Depending on the location of crew members aboard a rig, lighter force 4 to severe winds could easily make movement unsafe and increase the likelihood of slippage into machinery or falling into the surrounding sea — both situations that could have devastating consequences
While salt water requires 28.4 degrees to freeze versus fresh water’s 32, freezing temperatures can complicate operations whether they’re a once-in-a-century event, a cold snap or the seasonal norm. Any sea spray will freeze directly to any unheated surface at temperatures below 28. Two NOAA terms for conditions can quickly put the potential for danger into perspective:
- A Freezing Spray Advisory anticipates accumulations of freezing water droplets at less than two centimeters per hour caused by a combination of cold water, wind, cold air temperature and vessel movement.
- A Heavy Freezing Spray Warning is similar but anticipates accumulations of two centimeters or more per hour.
The thinnest coat of black ice can make even textured surfaces slippery and metal hard to hold. Moreover, even if temperatures don’t reach freezing, cold can cause materials to contract or tighten, become brittle, change viscosity or lose flexibility.
Add to that the human body’s limitations, the factor of wind chill and the added danger of becoming wet, and cold temperatures become a real challenge to safety. Even in warm months, extended exposure to ocean water can result in hypothermia—body temperature falling below 95 degrees.
HIGH SEAS AND CREST WAVES
Imagine seas where cresting waves are so high that they prompt the American Petroleum Institute to establish a new set of standards to protect offshore oil platforms and rigs—including a new height or air gap of at least 91 feet above sea level for the lowest deck.
The new standard was set in 2008 in reaction to the devastation resulting from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. While simulation models forecast wave heights for Katrina to be about 15.4 meters—50.5 feet—buoys recorded heights at 16.9 meters—55.4 feet. Statistically, that means that the highest waves could have been as high as 32.1 meters—105.3 feet.
Crest waves are recognized as the most dangerous part of storms at sea because of their impact, which can generate thousands of pounds of pressure per square inch on whatever it breaks against. In fact, large crest waves or rogue waves that are strikingly massive continue to attract attention because of their ability to both destroy mobile rigs and topple stationary platforms.
The breaking of these waves can damage the integrity of a vessel causing sinkage or tippage, leading to life threatening scenarios for anyone on board.
STORMS AND HURRICANES
As the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil & Gas Association highlights, “developing storm preparation and response plans is not a quick task done at the start of hurricane season.” With Gulf Coast rig counts averaging around 100 for most months and half of those attributable to Louisiana, it’s a safety measure that impacts the safety of thousands of offshore workers. To be effective, the response must be timed appropriately to the forecast, well in advance of the arrival of the tropical storm or hurricane:
- Rigs and drill ships may relocate to a safe area or try to outrun the storm.
- Operators shut down and secure facilities that are fixed.
- Helicopters or boats evacuate personnel in stages.
- Producing wells are “shut in” to prevent leaks or spills if rigs or platforms suffer damage.
- Post-storm, all operators use flyovers to assess damages.
- Assessment teams conduct on-site inspections and assessments to determine if facilities are safe to resume operations.
- Sites must be repaired as needed before resuming normal operations.
Throughout the entire process, the sense of impending danger and need to protect assets can represent long hours of extra duties and added responsibilities, stressful interactions, potential mistakes or overlooked contingencies. Evacuations may encounter unstable conditions as storms near, or transportation companies may strain to keep sufficient reliable aircraft or vessels in service. Post-event inspections and repairs may take costly weeks or months, and even then, some problems may not reveal themselves until a site has resumed full operations.
MAKE YOUR SAFETY A PRIORITY
All of this demonstrates why having established safety procedures for extreme weather in place is so important—and why all offshore workers need to be familiar with them. Wind can just as easily blast a worker rounding a corner off of a deck or send an unsecured hatch cover airborne as it can blow a vessel off course or into another structure. Extreme temperatures can tax even the latest technologies as well as human bodies. The pressures that storm surge and crest waves exert can sweep away rigs, platforms and people, and the forces powering tropical storms and hurricanes can threaten the stability of an entire industry.
With every incident millions of dollars hanging in the balance, individual offshore workers need someone in their corner. Offshore injuries caused by weather happen, and when they do, you can count on the experienced maritime personal injury attorneys of Morrow, Morrow, Ryan, Bassett & Haik to make sure that the company responsible makes the situation right. If you’ve suffered an offshore injury because of weather or someone you care about has been injured offshore, it’s time to reach out. Contact our experienced maritime personal injury team through our website, or call 800-655-4783 to schedule your free consultation today.