The rapid growth of the oil and gas extraction industry in the U.S. has provided a wealth of new jobs and a burst of economic vitality for many states, but at a cost. The industry’s fatality rate is two and a half times higher than that of the construction industry and seven times higher than general industry. Growth is expected to continue at a fast pace due to horizontal drilling and high volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF), making a focus on safety especially important. Additionally, occupational safety and health experts are concerned that the development of new technologies may change the nature of workplace hazards and lead to even more job-related deaths.

The numbers

From 2003 to 2009, 716 oil and gas extraction workers were killed on the job, resulting in an annual fatality rate of 27.5 deaths per 100,000 workers1 (compared to 3.9 for all U.S. workers). NIOSH has found a correlation between an increase in the number of active drilling and workover rigs and an increase in fatality rates, possibly due to the use of inexperienced workers, and a need to use all available equipment – even older rigs with fewer safeguards.

The more than 450,000 workers2 employed in the oil and gas extraction and support industries are engaged in many different industrial processes which often require the use of specialized equipment and skilled work crews. The job-related dangers they encounter are numerous and varied.

The number one hazard

 The top cause of death in the industry is highway motor vehicle crashes. Because well sites are often located in remote areas, workers spend a lot of time on the road, traveling to and from work sites, sometimes on unimproved rural roads.

Reducing the risk

Beyond the basics (use seat belts and avoid distracted driving), NIOSH says employers should: ensure that employees who drive on the job have valid licenses; incorporate fatigue management into safety programs; provide fleet vehicles that offer a high level of occupant protection in the event of a crash; offer periodic vision screening and general physicals for employees whose primary job duty is driving; and avoid requiring workers to drive significantly extended hours.

The number two hazard

Three of every five fatalities in the industry are the result of struck-by/caught-in/caught-between hazards. Exposure to this type of hazard comes from multiple sources, including moving vehicles or equipment (such as top drives and Kelly drives, drawworks, pumps, compressors, catheads, hoist blocks, belt wheels, and conveyors), falling equipment, and high-pressure lines. OSHA offers an example of a struck-by accident3 involving employees who were working on a double mast service rig which was pulling a 4.5-inch casing from the gas well after completing the first stage of an open hydraulic fracture. An experienced rig hand was killed when the load line failed and the load block struck him, inflicting blunt force trauma to his upper torso. The load line — which had been in use for three years — was in poor working condition, rusted, dry and brittle and had several broken wire strands.

Reducing the risk

To avoid accidents like the one described above, OSHA recommends performing regular inspections of all hoisting lines; following the field lubrication requirements from the wire rope manufacturer; implementing a slipping and cut-off preventive maintenance program for hoisting lines; and immediately removing damaged lifting lines from service.

Hazard number three

Fires and explosions are the third leading cause of work-related death in the industry. Flammable gases, such as well gases, vapors, and hydrogen sulfide, can be released from wells, trucks, production equipment or surface equipment such as tanks and shale shakers. Ignition sources can include static, electrical energy sources, open flames, lightning, cigarettes, cutting and welding tools, hot surfaces, and frictional heat.

Reducing the risk

OSHA recommends performing job hazard analyses (JHAs) prior to beginning work to determine potential hazards of the job and their controls; not using electrical tools and equipment that are not approved for the hazardous location where the work is to be performed; developing and implementing a hot work permitting program that includes atmospheric monitoring for concentrations of flammable vapors and providing ventilation to limit the concentration of flammable vapors to below ten percent of their LEL; and providing and requiring the use of flame-resistant clothing (FRC) for workers who are exposed to flash-fire hazards.


 Falls to lower levels account for six percent of all industry fatalities. Workers are sometimes required to access platforms and equipment located high above the ground.

Reducing the risk

Ensure that all employees who work at elevations above the ground or adjacent surfaces, such as a rig floor, are protected by guardrail systems, safety net systems, or personal fall arrest systems (PFAS); evaluate the worksite to identify jobs and locations where workers might be exposed to fall hazards; instruct all workers on how to properly use PFAS; and mandate the use fall protection equipment when employees are working at elevations.

Confined spaces

Confined spaces in the industry can take the form of petroleum and other storage tanks, mud pits, reserve pits and other excavated areas, and sand storage containers. In addition to the potential for ignition of flammable vapors or gases, workers risk asphyxiation and exposure to hazardous chemicals.

Reducing the risk

Confined spaces that contain or have the potential to contain a serious atmospheric hazard must be classified as permit-required confined spaces, tested prior to entry, and continuously monitored.

High-pressure hazards

Compressed gases or high-pressure lines can create dangerous risks. Internal erosion of lines might result in leaks or line bursts, exposing workers to high-pressure hazards from compressed gases or from high-pressure lines.

Reducing the risk

NIOSH offers a checklist4 covering OSHA regulations under the General Industry standard 29 CFR 1910.101 that apply to to the handling, storage, and use of compressed gases in cylinders or portable tanks.

Hazardous energy

Exposure to uncontrolled electrical, mechanical, hydraulic, or other sources of hazardous energy.

Reducing the risk

OSHA’s Lockout/Tagout fact sheet5 describes the practices and procedures necessary to disable machinery or equipment to prevent the release of hazardous energy. The OSHA standard for the Control of Hazardous Energy (Lockout/Tagout) (29 CFR 1910.147) for general industry outlines measures for controlling different types of hazardous energy.

Musculoskeletal disorders

Ergonomic injuries can result from lifting heavy items, bending, reaching overhead, pushing and pulling heavy loads, working in awkward body postures, and performing the same or similar tasks repetitively.

Reducing the risk

Minimize or eliminate risk factors through interventions such as pre-task planning, use of the right tools, proper placement of materials, education of workers about the risk, and early recognition and reporting of injury signs and symptoms.


1 The Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries

2 (Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages)