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Fall Fatalities among Oil and Gas Extraction Workers, 2005-2014

Posted on by Krystal L. Mason, ScM; Kyla D. Retzer, MPH; Ryan Hill, MPH; and Jennifer M. Lincoln, PhD
Figure 1

Previous research has shown that fatality rates for oil and gas extraction workers were decreasing for all causes of death except for those associated with falls. (1) A new study from National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, published in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, examined risk factors for fatal fall events in this industry during 2005-2014 using data from case investigations conducted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).  The study found that 63 oil and gas extraction workers died from a fall during 2005-2014, resulting in an average of 6.3 fatalities per year.   This report found slightly decreasing rates (though not statistically significant) of fatal falls during 2005-2014. While the decreasing rates suggest that safety may be improving, falls are still a leading cause of death in the oil and gas industry and additional interventions could prevent deaths from falls.

Results indicate that the majority of oil and gas extraction workers who died from a fall worked for a drilling contractor and fell from a height of 30 feet or greater. Occupations most commonly involved in a fatal fall were derrickmen, who work up to 90 feet above the rig floor on the derrick board, handling pipe (Figure 1). Their work is physically demanding, repetitive, and requires a great deal of concentration. Without proper safeguards, one misstep can result in a fall fatality. Rigging up and down was also identified as a hazardous operation possibly due to the opportunity for miscommunication that is created with the simultaneous movements of large equipment, vehicles, and workers (2).

Fall protection was required by regulation in 54 of the 63 fall fatalities. Fifteen deaths occurred to workers who were wearing a harness, but fell because their harness was not attached to an anchor point. In several of these cases, a visual or verbal check between the driller and the derrickman before drilling operations began may have prevented the fall. This check would ensure the derrickman remembers to tie-off with both his self-retracting lifeline (SRL) and a restraint system* on the derrick board. There were two cases involving incorrect donning of the fall protection harness. Workers must be fitted for the proper size harness and trained on proper donning of their personal fall protection equipment (3). Lastly, there were seven cases due to equipment failure. Fall protection equipment should be checked every day.  Worn, heavily soiled, or damaged equipment should be removed from service and destroyed to prevent future use. The NIOSH Rig Check Form for harnesses and lanyards can be used to ensure only undamaged fall protection equipment is available for use (4).

Greater efforts in fall prevention should target derrickmen and workers engaged in rigging up and down operations. Employers should first consider how to eliminate or control fall hazards by using engineering controls such as automated rig technologies that allow drill pipe to be handled from the rig floor. Where engineering controls are not feasible, administrative controls can be implemented to ensure derrickmen and other workers do not forget to anchor themselves while working at heights (5).  See the video Take Pride in Your Job: Fall Protection. Training on the proper use and fit of PPE can also be used to protect workers from falls (3).

A fall protection plan containing these processes should be available and understandable to workers. The use of existing training tools and ongoing job safety analysis should be completed and shared across companies to improve hazard identification and control during rigging up and rigging down operations (6). Additionally, training for self-rescue and rescue of fellow workers who have fallen and are suspended in the air by fall protection equipment should be written into the workplace hazard control program along with emergency response planning (7,8). Companies should ensure plans are being implemented on work sites. The oil and gas extraction industry has experienced a decline in the overall rate of fatalities. However, eliminating the need to work at height, training on how to identify and reduce the hazards of working at height, and proper use, fit, and inspections of PPE are essential in reducing fatal falls in this industry.

Additional research is needed to better understand fall fatalities that occurred outside of OSHA’s jurisdiction, such as self-employed workers. Your assistance with better understanding these worker fatalities would be helpful.  We are also interested in hearing from drilling contractors about the successes and challenges they have experienced with the use of engineering controls that remove the worker from the derrickboard. Please provide your input in the comment section below.


Krystal L. Mason, ScM, is an Epidemiologist in the Pennsylvania State Health Department (formerly with NIOSH).

Kyla D. Retzer, MPH, is an Epidemiologist in the NIOSH Western States Division. 

Ryan Hill, MPH, is an Epidemiologist in the NIOSH Office of the Director.

Jennifer M. Lincoln, PhD, is the Associate Director for Science in the NIOSH Western States Division.




    1. Mason KL, Retzer KD, Hill R, Lincoln JM. Occupational fatalities during the oil and gas boom – United States, 2003-2013. MMWR Morbidity and mortality weekly report 2015; 64(20): 551-4.
    2. Retzer KD, Ridl S, Hill R. Oil and Gas Extraction Worker Fatalities 2014 Mid-Year Report: January 2, 1014 – June 30, 2014; 2014. Available at
    3. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Strategic Precautions Against Fatal Falls on the Job are Recommended by NIOSH. In: Prevention HCfDCa, editor.; 2001.
    4. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Rig Check Fall Protection Inspection Forms; 2012. Available at
    5. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Take Pride in Your Job: Fall Protection; 2009. Available at
    6. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Move IT! Rig Move Safety for Truckers; 2012. Available at
    7. McCurley L. Falls From Height A Guide to Rescue Planning. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc; 2013.
    8. Hsiao H, Turner N, Whisler R, Zwiener J. Impact of harness fit on suspension tolerance. Human factors 2012; 54(3): 346-57.
    9. Mason KL, Retzer KD, Hill R, Lincoln JM. Occupational fatalities during the oil and gas boom – United States, 2003-2013. MMWR Morbidity and mortality weekly report 2015; 64(20): 551-4.

* Two common types of fall protection equipment include the fall arrest system and a fall restraint system. The fall arrest system consists of a vertical lifeline, connectors, lanyard, and harness with an anchorage point overhead, serving to arrest the fall of a worker. The fall restraint system consists of a harness, lifeline and/or lanyard, and a 5,000 pound capacity anchor which keeps the worker from reaching a fall point. There are also climbing assist devices that can be used while the worker is climbing the derrick ladder.


Posted on by Krystal L. Mason, ScM; Kyla D. Retzer, MPH; Ryan Hill, MPH; and Jennifer M. Lincoln, PhD

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