OSH Matters

Growing interest in Occupational Safety and Health

OSH Hazards in “Deepwater Horizon” (2016)

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Just use your imagination with me for a few minutes, ready?

What if you were on THAT rig on April 20th, 2010? Yes I’m talking about the one in the picture above, the one that’s TOTALLY engulfed in flames, the one that numerous workers are aboard just patiently waiting for their release date so they can FINALLY head home to their wives, husbands, children or parents, the one that looks like survivors may be the last thing you’ll find on board.

Did your heartbeat fasten? Did you feel like you would have been scared to death, LITERALLY! Just picture it, the heat, the pungent smell of chemicals, the excessive smoke, the roaring of the fire and everyone around you is panicking, afraid that they may not escape alive.  I don’t know about you, but I for one would probably FREAK OUT knowing that my life is flashing right before my eyes!

Wait, I’m not finished playing with your imagination! Let’s take this from another point of view, what if your child, your significant other, or relative was on that rig and you’re at home looking at continuous updates and reports of this tragedy. What would you be thinking?

On April 20th this horrific blowout claimed the lives of 11 offshore workers, it separated loved ones from families. But don’t you think maybe, just maybe if they followed protocol more lives could’ve been saved? The movie Deepwater Horizon is based on a true story that occurred in 2010 regarding the explosion of an oil rig due to multiple technical failures and bad decisions. The movie focuses primarily on the ill-fated and malfunctioning blowout preventer, a device designed to seal fluids such as gas beneath it and prevent them from coming to the surface. There are many inaccuracies and OSH related incidents in “Deepwater Horizon.” Some were small: For example, Mike Williams, the chief electronics technician for Transocean, sped down a flight of stairs on the rig carrying his luggage without holding any handrails, which would be a clear violation of Transocean safety policy. Others were huge.

Did you watch the movie Deepwater Horizon? Well, if you did, you would’ve noticed there were a number of hazards evident in the movie. They can be categorized into Physical Hazards, Psychological, Chemical, Biological and Ergonomic hazards.

If you are interested in the movie, here’s a link to the trailer:

But for now, let’s jump right in….

Physical Hazards

Many physical factors breaching health and safety measures were observed in this movie. As the movie opens, we can see an inspection is about to be carried out on the blowout preventer (BOP). Bubbles were then seen emerging up from the concrete base. When James Harrell and his crew arrived on the Deepwater Horizon, a floating rig, they are surprised to learn that the Schlumberger team assigned to run the cement bond log test by conducting a pressure test, were sent home early by orders from the BP managers, Donald Vidrine and Robert Kaluza. This is the first issue we saw emerging from the movie, the importance of workplace inspections.

Wouldn’t you automatically think, “Hmm that is not a great idea, you should definitely do the test”?

When you work offshore, safety is something you make top priority as there are a lot of risks and hazards involved. Workplace inspections help prevent accidents and incidents which allow for qualified persons to take corrective action in the event that something is wrong.

Harrell points out a hazard to the BP managers, that the cement is the only thing between them and a blowout, which is his way of telling them, “Guys this test is seriously important! We can’t just ignore it.” If the cement job is compromised, everything above it, that is, the rig and all persons on board go up with it. The risk involved seemed very high because, remember those bubbles we saw earlier? That does not look like a good sign!

Harrell eventually convinces Mr. Vidrine, one of the managers to carry out a negative pressure test. However the test only serves to weaken the cement and a pressure alert is heard from the computer system. However, nothing happened, no mud came out from the pipeline so it seemed fine.

But wait. Don’t breathe a sigh of relief, that’s not the end of it.

Remember when we mentioned the risk was high? Well, guess how high it was. The cement job eventually failed which resulted in a blowout that took the lives of six men, SIX MEN!

Gif illustrating first mud explosion
Source: http://gph.is/2y1U2Yn

During the blowout, the main hazard, debris, can be seen projecting in all directions, smashing into the office windows and the risk involved can be classed as high due to the fact that men were killed. Even though we can see a wire barrier to further prevent larger objects from passing through, it was no match for the amount of pressure that was being released. Mud and oil are blasting everywhere, there is chaos, which makes it hard for the men who were working closer to the pipes to evacuate as they could not see properly or run away from it due to the oily, muddy and slippery grounds.

Image 1 illustrating mud and oil creating a slippery environment

This goes to show the serious need to carry out the necessary/proper checks and tests so that you are able to operate in the safest possible working environment.

See guys, sometimes shortcuts can result in the most severe of outcomes. Sure they were thinking about the money and how much they could have saved by not running the test, but was it worth it? Imagine this is only the beginning of the disaster that is about to unfold. Prepare yourself emotionally. You’ve been warned.

Everything intensifies! A huge explosion erupts and no, not just the mud and oil, but a fiery explosion! You may not have even realized it, but your jaw just dropped during this scene. Mine sure did!

Usually, you would say, “It’s just a movie, whatever,” but no, this is based on true events, TRUE EVENTS! Some of the hazards presented in this part of the movie were everyday objects, such as the lights and doors. You usually wouldn’t worry about those but due to the intense pressure released from the second explosion, the risk involved was also very high. Mike and Harrell among others are badly injured when the pressure and blast caused the lights and glass on the rig to shatter and hurl everywhere and for the doors to burst open, one of which slammed into Mike.

Another physical hazard was the burning crane and the risk involved was very high as one man tried to “control” it. He gave his life to save the surviving crew by diverting the burning crane that would have fell on them. Can you imagine that? Knowing the risk involved but still taking it just to save others.

Gif showing crane crashing and killing the crew member who risked his life to save others
Source : http://gph.is/2gpB2cz

Mike and Andrea are the last two remaining on the rig. There are many hazards around them, which include, both on the rig and in the water; fire everywhere, gases in the air and falling debris all around them. They have two choices, stay on the rig or jump in the water. The risks involved in both scenarios, such as serious injury or death, are very high, but at this point, it seems to Mike like the better option is to take their chances and jump in the water. To his, hers and our relief, this was the better option as they both survived even though Mike is hit on the head by an object and has to keep dodging other projectile objects.

How can this be prevented?

As previously mentioned, where the health and safety of someone’s life is concerned, do not let money do the talking, don’t take the shortest and easiest way out. That could mean the survival or death of someone in extreme cases such as this one.

One safety issue occurred when the pressure gauge in the control room exceeded its recommended (safe) limit. Following that sign, the crew handled the matter nonchalantly not knowing the severity of the situation. Emergency evacuation procedures should have been followed immediately in areas where men were working close to the pipes and where the mud flows out.

Another part where they could have evacuated was when mud started coming out of the equipment, the men tried to control it when they should have immediately left and go to a safer part of the rig. Maybe if they evacuated at this point, the death toll could have been less.

Sometimes we don’t pay attention to simple safety hazards in our homes or workplace, or evaluate the worst case scenarios and try to take corrective action so that we may prevent them. This is one reason why we must respect and take seriously the OSH standards and follow protocol. If the BP managers had carried out the necessary tests and properly examined the cement structure, it could have saved many lives and prevented all the other hazards and risks that unfolded in the days after due to the oil spill it created. Also, trusting each other is important, if the engineer, that is the expert, said that the readings on the machine indicated that something was wrong, then he would most likely be right.

Psychological Hazards

After discussing all those physical hazards, can you imagine the psychological impact it had on these people both during and after the event? This isn’t something you forget about with time, oh no, this stays with you forever.

A psychological hazard is any hazard that affects the mental well-being or mental health of the worker by overwhelming individual coping mechanisms and impacting the worker’s ability to work in a healthy and safe manner. You would think the source of these psychological hazards starts after the pressure tests when the explosion happened, but no, as a matter of fact, this started almost as soon as they landed on the rig. This is because the first thing they learned as they arrived was that the Schlumberger workers were leaving without conducting the necessary tests. It immediately worries and stresses Harrell because something so important was simply called off by the managers without consulting him. This creates an environment of tension between him and the BP managers. This stress is also seen when Harrell decides to give the managers a piece of his mind and demand that operations on the rig will not continue unless the negative pressure test is done so he can be sure that it is safe to continue work. At this scene, we also see frustration displayed by Mike when he lists out all the equipment that is not functional which then makes his and the others jobs more complicated.

Can you imagine having to work with such arrogant persons? Always having to complain about something or not have your opinion be taken seriously? The constant stress and frustration is surely enough to have serious psychological implications.

636105960405775561-DWH-D20-06019-RImage 2 showing Harrell and crew members frustrated with BP managers while conducting the tests

Now, we’re going to talk about where the psychological hazards intensify, and I mean jaw-dropping and tearjerker moments! I’m sure at some points while watching this movie you were holding your head in shock or maybe even wiping away the tears.

After carrying out the tests, known to the audience but unknown to the actors at this point, the cement had been compromised and a massive blowout occurred. One of the BP managers decides to go outside where the pipes were which put him at the blowout scene along with other workers. Though the manager was okay and was being assisted by Caleb, one of the crew members, others were seriously hurt, some even died.

This manager walks out there being cocky thinking everything went smoothly, but to his dismay, it is worse than he could have imagined. Those who were aware of what was going on were now fearful of what would or could happen after this blowout and were beginning to panic.

Had I been on that rig, I would’ve already been on my way to get on a lifeboat and leave! Bye, not coming back, good luck to you, not taking any chances with my life.

If that initial blowout was not enough to freak you out, a series of malfunctions ignited the oil causing a massive fiery explosion which affected the majority of rig. Now everyone is aware of the situation and the only thing left to do is to evacuate the entire rig.

Fear, panic, nervousness and being scared to death are only a few ways to describe the emotional and psychological atmosphere on the Deepwater Horizon. Crew members had to witness the death of their co-workers in multiple scenes, which is something that may never leave their memories.

Nearing the end of the movie where everyone except Mike and Andrea have evacuated the rig, came a dilemma. Mike, who seemed to be the one thinking of the quickest escape decides that jumping in the water may be their only chance at survival. However Andrea suffers a panic attack as she does not want to die and says she will not jump off the rig. With no other option in mind, Mike pushes her off and jumps after her.

Gif illustrating Andrea being pushed off the rig
Source: https://giphy.com/gifs/3ohhwxmSJfmR9lRSi4

Wait, what? So you’re suffering from a panic attack and someone pushes you into the now fiery ocean. Sure at the end she survived and had it not been for that act she may have died, but in that moment, Andrea was probably thinking, this is it for me, the end.

They are both joined by the surviving crew members. You can see the sadness and distress of the crew from witnessing all that had just unfolded.

Even at the hotel, Mike is distraught. He falls onto the bathroom door, shattering it as he bursts out into tears. Family members are also distressed, they were concerned whether loved ones made it back. Most, if not all crews members may now suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder/syndrome (PTSD/PTSS). According to Mayo Clinic, PTSD is “a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.” Some of the crew members never worked on a rig again because the idea of such a thing recurring is just too much to handle emotionally.

Chemical Hazards

How did those hazards sound? What about chemical hazards? Oil rig + Fire + Offshore. What comes to mind? GAS & GASEOUS SUBSTANCES. Can you imagine? Does this even tickle your nasal passage?

Deepwater Horizon is a clear illustration of how the combination of carbon dioxide, highly dangerous chemical, combustion sources; including burning oil and natural gas, and the use of gasoline‐powered engines can lead to catastrophic danger.

Gif  illustrating fiery explosion
Source: http://gph.is/2gk3MDp

On the Deepwater Horizon platform there was serious concern about the potential health effects on workers from inhalation and skin exposure to crude oil, weathered oil, dispersants, solvents used to clean boats, and other chemicals. Did they wear any face masks? Nope.

Workers were not fully protected with the adequate PPE as Mike walked through the plant without any protective gear .They were exposed to health and safety risks at work. Look at the difference in the picture below, Mike is seen on the right side of the picture.

Image 3 illustrating lack off PPE worn by Mike

The workers on the platform were exposed to poisonous gas and chemicals . Imagine being exposed to harmful chemical on your skin while toxic gas and stifling smoke entering your respiratory system. Woozy? This is a bit traumatic to think about . There was a gas failure throughout the entire platform . A combination of gas, mud, and pressure lead to a cataclysmic mass advocate explosion and an over blast of flames throughout the entire platform. As the rig ignited and exploded it engulfed the platform causing damage to both the rig and ocean.

During the height of the explosion workers on the rig often were not clothed with gloves, eye protection, and respiratory protective equipment. With high-pressure methane gas expanding from the well it is essential to have the necessary safety gear to protect oneself.

The environment was also significantly affected as well. The ocean was engulfed in flames and oil emerged on the surface of the sea. Need a visual? Look at the picture below.

deepwater-horizon-oscar-effects-vfx-4-1200x675Image 4 showing ocean engulfed in flames as oil surfaces

The effects of the oil spill not only affected the workers on the Deepwater Horizon but was a catastrophic event experienced among aqua marine life. Oil spills frequently kill marine mammals such as whales, dolphins, seals and sea otters. Birds were covered with thick, black coating of oils which gave them difficulties to fly, causing them to endanger themselves by frequently colliding with objects.

Ergonomic Hazards

Thus far, we’ve looked at the physical, psychological and chemical hazards. What else comes to mind? Think about it; Oil rig, Metal, Iron, Pipes, Valves, Machinery, HEAVY EQUIPMENT and many others. Somewhere and somehow, one or more of these physicals factors can affect a person’s musculoskeletal system. Don’t fall asleep just yet, LET’S TALK ABOUT ERGONOMIC HAZARDS.

Some of the crewmen can be seen jointly trying to contain a piece of the equipment in the scene where the mug initially starts flowing over, and we both know that if it requires more than one person to contain it, it must be heavy.

Workmen operated in an environment where they would have suffered from poor posture issues as well as back and knee pains resulting from their job descriptions, noted by the lifting of heavy materials around the station. Some work cabins were also uncomfortable for employees because there was no air conditioning. This most likely lead to heat exhaustion. The chair seen in Mike’s cabin would cause him to have back pain due to the height of the back rest being to low, causing him to slouch (refer to picture below).

Image 5 illustrating Mike slouching over his desk


There is no going back! No rewinding the hands of time! The depiction of this movie, without a doubt, exhibits how ignorance over safety protocols can result in an episode of disaster. What’s “done is done”, however the pore-raising catastrophe from Deepwater Horizon would definitely make you aware of the importance to abiding by safety regulations and how it is effective in preventing tragedies such as this, an explosion of a massive oil rig. The memories and injuries remain as a constant lingering reminder of what could NOT have been, if only the CORRECT safety protocols were followed. Safety protocol should have taken precedence above all and this movie should serve as warning and catalyst for businesses, that safety is a priority.



Ergonomic Guidelines for Manual Material Handling. (2014, June 06). Retrieved October 09, 2017, from https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/2007-131/

King, B.S., &Gibbins, J.D.(2011, August). Health Hazard Evaluation of Deepwater Horizon Response Workers. Retrived from https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/hhe/reports/pdfs/2010-0115-0129-3138.pdf

Psychological Hazards and Controls for Rehabilitation Professionals. (2011, November 7). Retrieved from https://www.physiotherapyalberta.ca/course_materials/ohs_module_6_handout.pdf

The Failures that Caused the Gulf Oil Spill. (n.d.) Retrieved October 09, 2017, from https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn19425-the-eight-failures-that-caused-the-gulf-oil-spill/




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