Working on an oil rig is often listed among the most dangerous jobs in America, and there are good reasons for it. For anyone who didn’t watch the movie Deepwater Horizon, the potential for disaster is great, and when it does come, there’s little help to be found.

There are obvious reasons why working on an oil rig is so full of potential danger. First of all, people are working with volatile chemicals and using massive, complex machinery. That alone would make it as dangerous as the construction industry, which is always one of the most deadly in the country. There is a myriad of ways someone could potentially injure themselves on an oil rig, from simply slipping and falling to misuse of chemicals, to mechanical breakdown, to objects falling on someone.

Add to this already dangerous recipe the fact that, by definition, oil rigs are miles away from anyone. They sit in the middle of the ocean, far from towns and cities, far even from the coast guard. Should anyone need advanced medical attention in a short period, help is unlikely to arrive in time.

Then, there is the fact that these isolated people often work grueling shifts of around 12 hours and spend anywhere from a week to two weeks out on the rig at a time. Such strenuous work over such long hours encourages accidents.
Keep in mind, these are only the human risks for work on an oil rig, there are other equally (or perhaps greater) risks to the environment. As seen in recent years, even the most efficient clean up after an oil spill is still devastating to ocean life. That ecological cost can also be passed on to humans through devastating to the fishing industry, toxic elements washing up on shore, and contaminated water.

It is no wonder, though, that oil rigs have very strict safety procedures. The risks on all sides are great and the potential for catastrophe is great. With all that in mind, it is perhaps more amazing not that horrible events happen on oil rigs, but that they don’t happen more often. In fact, catastrophic events are extremely rare, even if more minor issues do occur with some regularity.

In 2009, for instance, there were 39 fires or explosions reported on oil rigs.

Even though most of those did not result in death, the glaring number and the potential (even if rare) for catastrophic events call into question the ongoing expansion of off-shore drilling. As the natural gas and renewable energy markets boom throughout the country, and older dirtier sources (especially coal, but including oil) continue to decline, a more forward-looking strategy should be called for, with the government putting resources towards those fields that are safer, cleaner, and cheaper for the country.

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