Under the Jones Act, companies are obligated to provide you with a safe place to work. This means ensuring that you have access to industry-standard equipment and safe work practices. Unfortunately, many companies will cut corners and opt for cheaper, less reliable equipment. They may also pressure their workers to complete jobs they otherwise shouldn’t simply for the sake of saving some money. That was the case with our client, an employee of a large offshore drilling company.
How a Supervisor’s Disregard for Procedures Caused Our Client’s Back Injury
A few years ago, our client was a 37-year-old assistant driller aboard a drillship based in the Gulf of Mexico. He had been working for this particular company for over four and a half years and was good at his job.
On the day of our client’s injury, the vessel’s no. 2 mud pump had started malfunctioning. The Toolpusher in charge at the time visited the pump room to investigate the issue. It became clear that there was a leak in the suction module of the mud pump. The module’s intake valve seat was not sealing and so they needed to remove the seat from the mud pump module.
At this point the Toolpusher had two options:
The first option would put more strain on the workers but would save the company some money. The second option would save his workers from unnecessary work but would have cost the company a few extra dollars. The Toolpusher chose the first option and instructed the day crew to begin removing the seat of the module. The company later had to remove the entire module anyways, making our client’s efforts to remove the seat completely unnecessary.
The day crew spent a large portion of the day attempting to remove the seat. By 6 p.m. when our client came on the night shift, the day crew had been unsuccessful. They conducted a changeover meeting and then our client and the night crew continued the task at hand.
Our client was given an all-threaded rod and a seat puller that he had to install into the valve. Once installed, he would then use a hydraulically actuated Porta-Power pancake jack to remove the stuck seat.
Lack of Proper Equipment for the Job
We’d like to point out that the company should have given the crew Very Heavy Duty Seat Pulling Jacks, which are industry standard for tasks like this. However, instead, they used the Porta-Power jacks which are not as powerful and ultimately proved inadequate for the job. Had they used the proper equipment to begin with, our client may not have been injured after hours of backbreaking work.
Awkward Position Contributed to Back Injury
Aside from not having the proper equipment, there was another issue with this particular job. Both the pump and valve seat were difficult to reach. Our client had to kneel on deck grating and awkwardly stretch over another pump in order to reach the pump module he was trying to fix. He had to hold this position for 15-25 minutes at a time, which put an incredible strain on his back. By the end of the night, he had spent an hour and a half in this awkward position.
After multiple attempts to remove the valve seat and swapping out three different pancake jacks, they were also unsuccessful and determined that the seat could not be removed.
At this time, our client received a call from the driller to check out a different pump that had stopped working. As he gathered his tools, he felt a pop in his back and fell to the ground in pain.
After hours of this kind of work, it was only a matter of time before our client was injured. OSHA documents awkward positions like the one our client was in as a frequent cause of injuries:
“Awkward positions of the spine, bending over, working on one’s knees, and working overhead are the most frequent causes of injuries resulting from poor body positioning to workers performing hot work operations. These injuries seldom result from a single traumatic incident. Instead, they develop over time as a result of frequently placing the body or its extremities in unusual positions for extended periods of time.”-OSHA, Hazard: Improper Body Positioning
Supervisor Disregarded Procedures for This Exact Situation
Unfortunately, this was completely preventable and had the Toolpusher followed company procedures, our client’s injury may have never even happened.
According to this company’s Step-by-Step Procedure for this particular job, if a hydraulic removal doesn’t work, the Toolpusher is to instruct a Welder to heat and then shrink the seat before the crew attempts another pull. However, the Toolpusher didn’t do this. He didn’t implement Stop Work Authority (SWA) after multiple failed attempts to hydraulically pull the seat out of the valve. He knew that both the day crew and the night crew were struggling to unseat the valve, yet failed to intervene. The Toolpusher failed to follow company procedures and, as a result, our client was injured.
Company Doctor Said it Was a Sprain, But That Wasn’t the Case
After his injury, our client was treated by the on-ship medic and later sent to shore for additional treatment. The company doctor diagnosed him with a lumbar strain, sent him home to rest, and later released to work. However, he remained in pain and continued to have back spasms.
He didn’t discover he had a herniated L4-5 disc until he retained our office and was examined by a neurosurgeon. Over the next year, our client underwent a microdiscectomy, a two-level fusion, physical therapy, and ultimately was permanently restricted from returning to heavy work.
Because of this very preventable injury, our client would be barred from ever working offshore again. A certified public accountant and economist looked at our client’s past and future wages and estimated that he’d lose out on over $2,000,000 over the course of his life. Because the company failed to protect our client’s safety, he went from making over $100,000 a year to $11/hour. Without a doubt, our client’s life was dramatically changed.
Despite the financial and physical difficulties our client had to endure, we fought hard for him and secured a confidential settlement that he was very happy with.