OSH Matters

Growing interest in Occupational Safety and Health

DEEPWATER HORIZON (2016): A HEALTH & SAFETY PERSPECTIVE

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INTRODUCTION

When the threat of imminent death becomes a reality, survival mode sets in. This is the situation which was faced by the main character, Mike Williams, on an oil rig deep in the Gulf of Mexico. His desire to see his family alive again was his drive to do whatever it took to stay alive. Facing a myriad of health and safety violations, from hurling projectiles to an outbreak of fire on an exploding oil rig, Mike lived to tell the story. This was the plot which provided the subject matter for the thriller movie “Deepwater Horizon”.

REVIEW OF MOVIE

Based on a true story, the account given in the movie Deepwater Horizon which occurred on April 20, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico, revealed that London-based oil giant, British Petroleum (BP) was responsible for the oil spill. This resulted in them having to pay billions of dollars in fines. The movie opens with an audio excerpt of a court trial, recounting the events of the tragedy on board the Deepwater Horizon.  In a symbolic representation of what was to occur in the movie, the scene opens with the main character, Mike Williams’ daughter giving an account of what takes place on the oil rig where her father works, which climaxed with an explosion sending black soda from a can spiralling high into the air.

Fast forward to all the main characters being safely airlifted on to the oil rig; the plot begins to unfold when the numerous quality control shortcuts and safety breeches perpetuated by BP officials for the sake of profiteering were identified. In a twist of irony, Mr. Jimmy, the offshore installation manager, was given an award for the rig’s excellent safety record, in what seems like seconds before violent eruptions are set off on board the Deepwater Horizon. Thereafter, mayhem, chaos and catastrophe follow; culminating with the unfortunate death of eleven crew members.

HAZARDS IDENTIFIED

From the movie, the hazards observed were classified into physical, psychological, chemical, biological and ergonomic. A discourse is advanced for each classification and insights to mitigate their effects are also stated.

PHYSICAL HAZARDS

Physical hazards are factors within the environment that can harm the body without necessarily touching it. This generalization covers the US OSH Act’s definition of a physical hazard as a chemical. Reference is made to the US Act since our local OSH Act of T&T (2004) was amended in 2006 and fails to define such hazard. Some examples of physical hazards are constant loud noise, radiation and exposure to elevated levels of pressure, amidst many others.

In one of the opening scenes of the movie, the first physical hazard encountered was excessive noise while crew members were approaching and disembarking from the helicopter. Some of the crew members were not wearing earplugs which may result in hearing loss, annoyance reaction and tinnitus to name a few. The character Mr. Jimmy was given a warning to retreat but was unable to receive the message because of the loud noise.

On the Deepwater Horizon oil rig there were lack of maintenance and testing. Many of the equipment needed to be repaired but the executives were trying to cut cost. A debate was ongoing which resulted in the approval to carry out the drilling job, a negative pressure test to be exact. However, the build-up of pressure which clogged the pipe with debris resulted in a massive blowout. This produced slip/trip, fall, crush and cut hazards arising in physical injuries as seen in Figure 1. Crew members were tossed like dirty laundry; covered in broken glass and had limbs caught and crushed by machinery and rubble. Most men were properly attired in personal protective equipment (PPE) which decreased the level of injury they experienced.

fig 1
Fig. 1 showing Mike and other workers with various injuries.

After the blowout the oil rig was engulfed in flames resulting in the death of several crew members and the injury of countless others. Many individuals were burned whilst others were exposed to choking hazards and gas inhalation. Though gloves were worn there was no respiratory protection available. The OSH Act of T&T (2004) as amended (2006) Part IV Section 32 states “respiratory protection of an approved standard shall be provided and maintained, where necessary, for use by all personal in the industrial establishment.”

fig 2
Fig. 2 showing the aftermath of the explosion.

Malfunctioning smoke detectors presented another hazard on the rig. It exposed the workers to harm from the smoke and fumes, which were present before, during and after the explosions which rocked the structure. The apparent absence of a prepared and familiar disaster response routine resulted in panic and confusion among the rig workers who stumbled about,  however, still finding their way to the lifeboats. The presence of oil slicks floating on the water also contributed towards burn hazards. Drowning was another hazard identified, as many of the crew had to evacuate on lifeboats. The falling debris from collapsing portions of the rig also presented a crush hazard. As stated earlier the majority of men on the rig wore gloves. However, while attempting to restore power and attempting to prevent the resulting spill, one of the crew members grasped a door wheel without gloves and experienced a significant burn. In this regard, burns were another hazard present. Especially when two persons had to climb the burning metal stairs to escape the engulfed rig.

PSYCHOLOGICAL HAZARDS

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.” In the Occupational Safety and Health Act (2004) as amended (2006), Part III, Section 15. (a) states, inter alia, that an employee can refuse to do work if he has reason to believe there is serious and imminent danger to himself or unusual circumstances have arisen which are hazardous or injurious to his health or life. This was the case on Deepwater Horizon when Mr. Jimmy refused to allow his crew to work pending the necessary safety tests; for he was aware of the possible dangers that existed from the cost cutting measures sanctioned by BP officials. In the movie, the failure of the safety mechanisms set off a series of explosions which led to serious harm, dismemberment and death of the crew on board. Seeing their colleagues drenched in blood from cuts and bruises from projectiles and falling metal catapulted the crew into emotional distress.

In Figure 3 Mike is trying to console Andrea after witnessing the catastrophic events on board the Deepwater Horizon where their colleagues were seriously injured. The stress of the explosion also caused another crew member to become disoriented and unaware of his surroundings, as he is seen in the movie asking if Mike was his brother and where he was, because his sense of direction got impaired. The psychological hazard was not limited to the crew on board, but was also experienced by the family, friends and loved ones of those on board the oil rig, who are seen frantically waiting on news of what had happened on the rig and whether their loved one had survived the ordeal.

fig 3
Fig. 3 showing Mike trying to console Andrea. 

Figure 4 shows the wife of Mike Williams as she tried to obtain information on what had happened on board the Deepwater Horizon. The uncertainty surrounding the events was enough to affect her coping mechanism and mental health. Other relatives were not as fortunate as she was, to see their loved one alive again. For example, there was a man who kept asking Mike if he had seen his son; when Mike answered no, the stress of the situation caused the man to snatch Mike, which was a means of venting his frustration. This event occurred in the lobby of the hotel where all family members of the crew had gathered to greet their relatives who had survived the ordeal. This reality would trigger the need for counselling to assist friends and relatives with the new found reality that their loved ones would not be returning from what should have been their routine twenty-one day shift offshore.

fig 4
Fig. 4 showing Mike’s wife desperate for information about the Deepwater Horizon. 

A work organizational factor such as work harassment is also a type of psychological hazard which can be noted at the workplace. In the movie, depicted by Figure 5 below there was a scene where the BP Executive/Night-time Rig Supervisor, Donald Vidrine, pressured Jason, Senior Toolpusher, to perform a negative pressure test at the kill line, even though the rig supervisor Mr. Jimmy disproved because it was not the usual protocol. Initially, Jason listened to his supervisor but after the BP Executive called him out for being scared, he went against Mr. Jimmy and listened to Donald to perform the kill line test which eventually lead to the devastation of the rig. In this instance, the pressure put on Jason led him to neglect any logical thought and he wanted to prove his manager wrong and in so doing, did as Donald demanded.

fig 5

Fig. 5 showing standoff between Mr. Jimmy and BP manager Donald.

According to Occupational Safety and Health and (OSH) legislation, all workplace hazards must be identified and assessed for their risk level. Many specific OSH codes applying to psychological hazards exist. Part 27 of the OSH Code identifies workplace violence and harassment as a hazard and sets forth employer responsibilities.

CHEMICAL HAZARDS

A hazardous chemical refers to a chemical which has properties with the potential to do harm to human or animal health, the environment, or capable of damaging properties and are combustibles. The term includes chemical dusts, vapours, smoke, fumes, mixtures, solvents, detergents, acids, alkalies, petroleum and paints etc.

In the movie, the drill crew floorhands who cleared the drilling mud were at a higher risk for these types of chemical hazards. Figure 6 below shows the initial explosion of drilling mud.

fig 6

Fig. 6 showing initial explosion after drilling mud and oil.

Naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM); uranium, thorium and potassium are present in the earth’s crust and are usually left untouched. Exposure will usually occur in the drilling process as seen in the movie which affected the drill crew floorhands who cleared the drilling mud. Figure 7 below shows the drill crew floorhands in the movie trying to control and contain the spewing drilling mud.

fig 7

Fig. 7 showing drill crew floorhands trying to control and contain the spewing drilling mud.

After the initial explosion it was evident that there was natural gas escaping when Mike, who was the chief electronic technician and lead character, smelled the air. Hydrogen Sulphide (H2S) usually identified by a “rotten egg” smell is colourless and highly flammable. In its lowest forms of exposure persons can have disturbed equilibrium, eye and skin irritation as portrayed by Mike when he was walking through the corridors of the rig looking for a way to escape.

Additionally, in the movie shortly after the explosion, a pelican, which is shown in Figure 8, flew into the pit where part of the crew including Andrea, the dynamic positioning operator, was watching the entire explosion. The appearance of the bird caused some shock and confusion among the crew members. The pelican flew around frantically and damaged some of the buttons on the equipment and control panel. From the movie it was evident that harm to animals was another effect of chemical hazards.

fig 8

Fig. 8 showing dead bird after being covered in oil.

BIOLOGICAL HAZARDS

A biological hazard is caused by biological waste such as medical waste, microorganisms, virus, bacteria etc. The biological hazards can affect both human and animal life and health in a variety of ways, which has the effect of altering DNA.

In Figure 9, there were drill crew floorhands working by mud pumps, when one of them noticed mud seeping out around the drill pump where they were standing. Mere seconds after this discovery an explosion occurred forcing a mixture of mud and oil into the air.

fig 9.png

Fig. 9  showing Caleb being covered in mud after the mud pump burst.

The composition of this mixture had been in the ocean for years and would have bacteria and some microorganisms in it. The only protection the workers had were hard hats, overalls and shoes. The workers should have been provided with face protection such as goggles and masks. The OSH Act of T&T (2004) as amended (2006), Part IV, Section 23, speaks about PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) for employees. In this case more protective equipment should have been provided in the event of an accident such as that occurred. The equipment would have prevented mud from getting into the eyes and mouths of the workers. The OSH Act of T&T (2004) as amended (2006) also speaks about safeguards as it relates to the safeguarding of machinery. The employers should have ensured they protected the mud pump in such a way that it would never be able to release mud on workers. Better engineering was needed. There was also the fact that the workers obtained many cuts while trying to escape the oil rig. These cuts were left untreated throughout the entire ordeal. Open wounds can attract bacteria which can become infected. If these infections are not properly treated by a health practitioner you run the risk of further complications, as seen in Figure 10 when Mr. Jimmy got a swollen eye from projectiles. The OSH Act of T&T (2004) as amended (2006) places emphasis on certain body parts namely ear, eyes, leg and arm. As life would be severely altered if they are seriously damaged.

fig 10

Fig. 10 showing Mr. Jimmy’s swollen eyes after being hit with projectiles.

The OSH Act of T&T (2004) as amended (2006) under General Duties makes mention that an emergency plan shall include suitable and rapid means of first aid help and transportation from the industrial establishment to the hospital for injured help. There was no quick first aid help given to Mike or any injured person and there wasn’t enough transportation for all the injured. Emergency drills should have been done often so they would have better handled the situation and known how to treat injuries.

ERGONOMIC HAZARDS

Ergonomic Hazards are physical factors within the environment that harms the musculoskeletal system. They include motions such as repetitive movement, manual handling, workplace/job/task design, uncomfortable workstations and poor body positioning.  Ergonomic issues throughout the movie can be associated with a wide range of concerns which also involves skilled performance and stress.

Figure 11 depicts a scene in the movie in which Caleb was required to pull a wheel in a circular, motion to lock off the pump.  This motion could place strain to his lower back as it involved a turning motion and poor feet balance during the process.  While he continues to turn the wheel, the ergonomic hazard in this regard could result in muscle spasm or even cervical discs injury.  Loss of muscle function, sensation and in extreme cases disrupted signal between the brain and body can also be the end result of this action.

fig 12

Fig. 11 showing Caleb turning the wheel on a valve.

Another ergonomic hazard identified is seen in Figure 12 in which Mike is seated repairing smoke detectors. The poor seating posture can result in loss of lordotic curve of the lumbar and cervical discs region. This manner of poor posture for extended periods of time may cause hip rotation to lose its outward curve and by extension negatively impact on his spinal cord.  The poor posture displayed can also cause him to suffer muscle tension thereby increasing the pressure on the intervertebral discs.  This uneven distribution of body weight can also occur while being seated without proper support for extended hours. The lumbar curve may flatten out in the seated posture also increasing pressure to the intervertebral discs.  It also may lead to nerve and spine injury and resulting in severe back pain as he sits without proper support.

fig 13

Fig. 12 showing Mike repairing smoke detectors. 

Based on the OSHA Act 2004 amended (2006), Section 15, inter alia, states that an employee may refuse to work or do particular work where he has sufficient reason to believe that (b) any machine, plant, device or thing he is to use or operate is likely to endanger himself or another employee. In the movie we see violations in the workstation area where the employees are required to function. The seating and standing positions were not designed to provide adequate support to the back, arm, neck area etc. These breaches could have led to serious injury while already performing tasks in an already high-risk environment.

CONCLUSION

It is obvious that throughout the movie, that the BP officials on-board were the ones responsible for the tragedy on the Deepwater Horizon. The crew under the supervision of Mr. Jimmy were adamant on meeting safety standards. However, BP executives’ only concern was that they were behind schedule and they needed to initiate drilling. Their greed and deliberate disregard of all the warning signs of potential danger resulted in the catastrophe on the oil rig, which in real life caused BP to dig deep into their coffers to pay fines. This movie serves to remind all employers, that they have a duty to ensure the safety, health and welfare at work of all employees, as well as to remind all employees that they have a right to refuse to work, if they feel their health or life is under threat.

REFERENCES

 

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