Will A Super-charged Hurricane Season Impact Oil Rig Workers This Year?

April 17, 2024

Hurricanes are the common term for tropical cyclones that develop in the Atlantic Ocean between June and November. They generally develop over warm ocean waters. This warm ocean water heats the air above it, causing the air to rise. As the warm air rises, it leaves lower pressure below it. Cooler air then moves in to replace the rising warm air. This cycle causes huge storm clouds to form and develop, with the warm water acting as a power generator for the storm. 

Hurricanes are categorized based on their sustained wind speeds, from Category 1 (least severe, with winds of 74-95 mph) to Category 5 (most severe, with winds over 157 mph). The higher the category, the greater the potential for damage. In addition to the extreme wind forces, hurricanes can also cause damage from flooding caused by heavy rainfalls or storm surges on the coastline. 

Hurricanes have a devastating impact on everything in their path, including ships and offshore structures such as oil rigs. Additionally, when they make landfall, hurricanes cause devastating destruction to onshore property. 

What is a “Super-Charged” Hurricane Season?

Not every hurricane season is the same regarding how many hurricanes are and how intense they are. A “super-charged hurricane season” refers to a hurricane season that is more intense than usual, with a higher number of storms and, often, more powerful hurricanes. The most common causes of super-charged hurricane seasons are a combination of warm ocean waters, La Niña Conditions, high sea surface temperatures, more active African monsoon season, and favorable wind patterns. 

Meteorologists and forecasters predict that 2024 will be a super-charged hurricane season because many of these factors will be present. Specifically, the forecasters are predicting that the ocean waters will be warmer than normal in addition to having the La Niña Conditions. When there’s a La Nina, there are more storms in the Atlantic during hurricane season because it removes conditions that suppress storm formation.

Offshore workers and their families should be aware of an increased risk of a supercharged hurricane season because they are stationed on rigs, vessels, and platforms that are directly in the path of potential hurricanes, especially in regions like the Gulf of Mexico, a hotspot for both hurricane activity and offshore oil and gas operations.

The Impact of Hurricanes on Offshore Workers

Offshore oil and gas jobs are becoming increasingly common as US energy companies tap into new offshore reservoirs in the Gulf of Mexico and beyond. Advances in drilling technologies have vastly expanded the geographical opportunities for oil and gas drilling to include thousands of miles of untapped reserves tens of thousands of feet below the ocean floor. 

Movable drilling vessels and fixed-platform drilling rigs accomplish these offshore operations. Each vessel and rig includes a crew of up to 400 people per project. Not only do these projects need skilled workers to discover and capture the oil, such as engineers, drillers, welders, and floor hands, but they also hire a host of support staff, such as cooks, galley hands, machinists and mechanics. All of these workers are exposed to the hazards posed by natural disasters such as hurricanes. 

Specific challenges hurricanes pose to offshore workers (e.g., evacuation, isolation).

Offshore workers have some obvious safety concerns while working on the projects, such as the risk of an offshore rig explosion, capsized vessels, helicopter crashes, and falling into the water. However, offshore workers are increasingly more at risk for less obvious hazards such as hurricane disasters as projects get farther away from shore and are subject to more frequent and intense storms.  

Unlike land-based workers, offshore workers’ ability to escape the path of a hurricane is much more dependent on coordinated transportation. Many offshore rigs can only be reached by boat or helicopter. Thus, planning to evacuate these workers on time is critical to their safety during a hurricane. 

Personal stories or case studies of offshore workers affected by hurricanes.

One of the most infamous cases of a hurricane’s destruction capacity came with the sinking of the SS El Faro in 2015. In that case, the entire crew of a cargo ship perished when the captain sailed directly into Hurricane Joaquin, which was classified as a Category 4 hurricane. The SS El Faro planned a route between Jacksonville, Florida and San Juan, Puerto Rico, taking the ship 200 miles south of the storm’s projected path. When the ship departed, the storm was not a hurricane. 

However, as the ship followed its planned path, the storm increased in strength and shifted further south in the direct path of the ship. The captain decided to shift the ship’s route only slightly south against the advice of the mates on board, who urged the captain to go further south. The captain was confident that if the ship stuck to the normal course, they would quickly leave the hurricane’s path. As the ship continued on its path, the hurricane strengthened again and was now on a collision course with the ship. The time to avoid the hurricane was over. The ship then prepared to ride out the storm.

Stuck in the middle of the hurricane, the ship quickly experienced massive system failures and started taking on water. Within 30 minutes of entering the storm, the ship lost its main steam propulsion engine, which left it powerless to escape the brutal conditions of the hurricane. The ship sank in 15,000 ft of water less than an hour later. The entire crew of 33 perished that day.  

Oil and Gas Companies’ Hurricane Preparedness

Offshore platforms’ top goals in preparing for hurricanes should be employee safety first and equipment preservation second. The equipment and property used by the employees are designed to withstand “100-year Storms,” a designation that includes everything up to Category 5 events. Thus, the actual equipment and rig can be left alone in the path of a hurricane and survive with minimal consequences.  

To accomplish the goal of employee safety first, a basic hurricane preparedness plan should have three phases. First, storm notification, second complete planned preparations, and three shut down and evacuation. 

Phase 1 is the storm notification phase. In this phase, the offshore personnel should review the operations forecast, communicate with air and marine transportation providers, and perform safety system checks. This phase ensures that the necessary transportation is given enough time to safely make it to the offshore platform. 

Phase 2 is the complete preparations phase. In this phase, the offshore platform should secure all equipment, test communications systems that enable monitoring from shore, and evacuate non-essential personnel. 

Phase 3 is the shutdown and evacuation phase. In this phase, the offshore platform should shut in wells and subsurface safety valves, close incoming and exit pipelines, shut down operating systems and transport remaining personnel to shore.

Training and drills are conducted to ensure readiness.

Having a plan is only one part of preparing for disasters. Companies should routinely conduct training and simulated drills to ensure employees have experience performing their tasks.   

The Importance of Hurricane Preparedness

As seen with the disaster of the SS El Faro, the failure to take proper precautions from hurricanes can come with a disastrous price tag of human lives and economic losses. 

Offshore oil and gas workers are dependent on the coordinated transportation necessary to get them off of the offshore platform. Offshore workers who are not able to leave the offshore platform before a hurricane arrives are left to weather the storm and face the forces of the hurricane alone. 

In addition to the human toll, failing to secure the equipment or shut down the operations could also lead to vast economic and environmental damage. For example, the semi-submersible oil platform Thunder Horse PDQ almost sank into the ocean in July 2005 after Hurricane Dennis hit it. The $5 billion platform was almost a complete loss because an incorrectly plumbed pipe allowed the water from the storm to flow into the buoyancy tank responsible for stabilizing the platform.  

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This year could be classified as a super-charged hurricane season due to a combination of climate-related factors such as warmer Atlantic ocean waters and reduced wind interference (La Niña), allowing for more hurricanes to form and simultaneously allowing them to gain in strength. This is significant to offshore workers because more projects are shifting to offshore locations, which puts them at significant risk if they end up in the path of a hurricane.

Offshore companies need to be more prepared than ever to have a proper hurricane preparation plan due to the increased risk of hurricane formation and increased strength. 

If offshore companies properly plan for hurricanes in their projects, they can minimize the loss of human life and economic damage to these projects.   

Here at Morrow & Sheppard LLP, our nationwide offshore injury lawyers will hold these companies accountable for failing to prepare for hurricanes that put offshore workers at risk.  

Get a Free Case Review by Calling Morrow & Sheppard Now.

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