Government agencies recently acknowledged a pattern among oil worker fatalities, which were previously ruled natural deaths by heart failure. The stunning similarities among these deaths are forcing industry insiders to consider the role of hydrocarbon chemicals in these fatalities.
At least ten oil-field workers have suddenly died on top of or near storage tanks in the past few years, with six fatalities in 2014 alone. There were no witnesses to these men’s deaths, all of which were initially attributed to natural causes. All ten workers died while taking oil samples or tank gauging, a task that involves opening a hatch and climbing on top of a catwalk between rows of storage tanks to measure the levels of oil and byproducts after fracking is completed.
Tank gauging is typically done every few hours alone in remote areas. When the worker opens the hatch, hydro chemicals that have vaporized and built up in the tanks burst through the hatch in an invisible but dense plume. When inhaled in large quantities, hydrocarbon chemicals can cause immediate asphyxiation and heart failure.
All ten workers were found dead on the catwalks near storage tanks they were testing – all were relatively young, not in the age range of high heart failure risk. Yet all deaths were attributed to natural heart failure, though a few have retroactively attributed the cause of death to hydrocarbons.
Acknowledging the pattern between these deaths, federal agencies and industry groups plan to send a joint alert to the oil industry, warning of the risk of inhaling hydrocarbon chemicals. New recommendations for how to work with storage tanks are also expected – insiders state the industry has been ignoring warning the risks for years.
The CDC first recognized the pattern in May 2014. In one small sample, federal investigators found some of the chemicals vaporizing in the tanks exceeded levels that could cause death or permanent health effects. Evidence like this proves that both government and industry insiders knew the tank emissions could be dangerous, yet companies failed to require workers to monitor chemical levels.
A former industrial hygienist told the Wall Street Journal that he tried to get workers into safety respirators as early as 2009, but industry executives refused his requests, telling him this was how everyone else did it.
A safety consultant for North Dakota oil companies said that, from his perspective, there is “no question,” that the risk of dangerously toxic fumes “was absolutely known” by the companies.
There are several ways employers can control exposure, including providing protective equipment, applying administrative or engineering controls, or substituting a less hazardous chemical. Safety fixes to reduce chemical hazards are commonplace in other countries, such as Canada, with large oil producing industries.
One method that is used regularly in other countries is using automated or remote methods to read tank levels, instead of having live workers check the gauges. Of course, this adds cost to the process. In investigation related to a worker death, Marathon Oil was found to be using pipes that were too narrow to properly measure the pressure of gas coming through them. This created an excess of gas buildup in the tanks.
In a lawsuit regarding his death, an environmental engineer for the company said he asked Marathon to redesign some of its piping systems so there would be a more steady flow, but was ignored. Marathon Oil took no responsibility for the death of 21-year-old Dustin Bergsing and did not admit liability, ultimately settling with Bergsing’s family out of court. More on Bergsing’s death and his family’s lawsuit can be found here.
Unfortunately, many oil and gas sites are exempted from OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) rules, including those that dictate how to handle benzene exposure. Federal officials have limited authority to force the oil industry to protect workers, and the industry is of course in pursuit of one thing: profits.
Toxic exposure attorneys at Pintas & Mullins Law Firm are currently accepting cases of serious injury and death from workplace exposure. If you or someone you love suffered chemical exposure at work, contact our firm for a free case review. We accept clients nationwide, and never charge any attorneys’ fees unless we win you a settlement or verdict.