It is no secret that working on an oil field is incredibly dangerous, be it here in Oklahoma or elsewhere. Heavy equipment, noxious gases, and the pure force of Earth itself create a uniquely life-threatening work environment. Those who risk their lives to perform these necessary jobs deserve as much protection as possible, both by the law and their actual employers, but workers’ compensation cases for oil field workers can be incredibly complicated and convoluted. Employers rarely want to help their injured workers or even help prevent future accidents, as it comes at a financial cost, but as an injured employee, you have rights.
If you are an oil field worker, understanding the full scope of risk associated with your position alongside your rights as an employee can be one of the best ways to protect yourself. Unfortunately, many of the possible accidents that can happen on an oil field are caused by the negligence of those who run them — namely, the employers. When they cut costs by forgoing necessary safety equipment or training, it is the worker who ends up trapped and injured in a collapsed trench.
Understanding trench collapses and how they happen
Whether you’re building a foundation or laying pipelines, you may frequently find yourself in and out of construction trenches. They are widely used across the country for a variety of oil- and gas-related occupations due to their versatility and ability to provide ease of access, but like tunnels, they are capable of collapsing and seriously injuring or killing anyone inside them. Unlike tunnels, they must be as deep as they are wide, which means a quick escape in an emergency situation is incredibly difficult.
Trench collapse can happen for a variety of reasons, but the most common are:
- Incorrect sloping, which encourages instability and may not be able to handle the weight of workers climbing up and down.
- Excessive pressure, such as from heavy machinery pressing down onto the soil.
- Naturally unstable soil, though ideally the soil should be checked before the trench is built in the first place.
- Flooding and drought in different but equal ways. An excess of water erodes the soil, and droughts also encourage breakdowns.
- Nearby disturbances, which includes anything from the vibrations of nearby construction work to earthquakes.
- Neglect, by either the workers, the employers, or both.
Two of these reasons may help explain why the risk of trench collapse seems to be increasing here in Oklahoma — namely, drought and earthquakes.
When soil is too dry, it can’t compact the way it needs to for trenches to be structurally sound, and it also blows away more and more with every breeze. Not only is that material too unstable for building, it is actively leaving where it needs to be. We Oklahomans have been in the midst of a serious drought for quite some time now, meaning soil is looser, drier, and lighter all across the state.
Now, mentioning earthquakes may seem a bit odd, as Oklahoma’s lack of fault lines makes it an incredibly unlikely spot for natural tremors, but science has shown that the very oil field work that requires trenches may be responsible for making them harder to build. We have seen a surge in seismic activity since 2009 that seems to be largely due to the wastewater disposal processes used by oil fields. When oil and gas production creates fluid waste, that waste is injected deep into the earth. Since the soil is already extremely dry, it’s unable to absorb water, meaning that liquid can carve through the earth and further destabilize it. After a while, this can cause man-made earthquakes, which destabilize the soil even more, which then makes trenches harder to build, and on the cycle goes.
These earthquakes are no longer as rare as they used to be. Earthquakes at a magnitude 3.0 or higher have been happening more and more in Oklahoma, and oil field workers must find a way to continue their job regardless.
Employer neglect plays a large part in Oklahoma City trench collapse
Everyone and everything on an oil field has a long, strict list of safety regulations, procedures, and requirements to follow in order to mitigate as many risks as possible. OSHA — the Occupational Safety and Health Administration — dictates those guidelines and the consequences of neglecting them across all hazardous occupations, but lately, they have had reason to hone in on the employers of oil field workers. More people died in the first half of 2022 to trench collapse than throughout the entirety of 2021, and it absolutely cannot only be blamed on weather conditions and natural disasters.
It is not uncommon for employers to neglect certain safety measures, required training, and even equipment maintenance for the sake of saving a few extra dollars. Whether this means failing to check an area’s soil before ordering construction, refusing to upgrade broken parts, or overseeing improper/unsafe building for the sake of efficiency, it is happening often enough that OSHA had to launch over 1,000 surprise inspections to catch these employers and try to prevent future deadly accidents.
An Oklahoman contractor, for example, faced multiple OSHA citations and fines for an incredibly long list of dangerous practices, including a lack of cave-in protection, standing water in the trenches, ladders propped against unstable walls, and even a lack of an easy exit. Every single worker under him was at a seriously heightened risk at an already risky job. These were repeated violations, if it wasn’t bad enough, which means this behavior is a willful pattern and neglect. How many other contractors are forcing their employees to work under similar conditions?
Seeking justice as an oil field worker after a trench collapse
The injuries one could suffer after something like a collapsed trench are not only life-threatening, but they could leave victims with permanent disability, disfigurement, or impairment. Common oil field injuries include brain trauma, back and spinal cord injury, broken or shattered bones, loss of limb/amputation, repetitive stress injuries, and even hearing loss. Since not every injury is preventable (though many are), workers’ compensation exists for these victims to ensure they can afford rest, recovery, and adaption to whatever their new normal will look like, and it is important for oil field workers to know how to pursue.
Workers’ compensation is a no-fault system, which means you do not have to prove an OSHA violation or malicious action from your employer caused your injuries. As long as your injury or condition was caused by or happened on the job, you are eligible for compensation. However, your employer and their insurance may try to deny or lowball your claim, and if their unsafe practices DID cause your serious injuries, you may be able to go beyond workers’ compensation and sue them with the help of a personal injury attorney. Consulting with an experienced legal representative about the details of your case before taking any action can ensure you follow the right path for your unique circumstances.
Hiring that representation to advocate on your behalf as soon as you are injured on an oil field protects your rights and finances every step of the way. In Oklahoma City, the experienced personal injury attorneys at Cunningham & Mears work hard to make sure negligent and unsafe employers pay — literally — for their actions so victims can focus on themselves and moving on. Serious injuries can lead to thousands and thousands of dollars in medical expenses and wage loss, and when those injuries could have been prevented, those victims deserve justice. To discuss your case and get started, call us today or use our contact form.
Marcus P. Mears is a founding partner of Cunningham & Mears. Mr. Mears is committed to helping Oklahoma’s injured victims in the areas of injury law and insurance litigation. Mr. Mears was selected to the Million Dollar Advocates Forum for his work as lead counsel in multiple seven figure injury cases. Learn More