Hydrocarbon inhalation added to long list of oil & gas perils

CDC investigates yet another threat for one of the deadliest industries in the nation.

 

In March 2014, 51-year-old Joe Ray Sherman, a driver for Now or Never Trucking of Greeley, Colorado, was at work, checking oil in a tank on an oil pad near Kersey, Colorado. To do so, he had to open a porthole-like hatch on the tank and pull out a sample from inside. Sherman was later found hanging by his sweatshirt, which had snagged on a corner of the oil tank’s catwalk. He was dead. 

The coroner who examined Sherman determined that he died of heart disease. But last month, the Centers for Disease Control released a report saying that toxic fumes from the oil tank likely killed Sherman, along with eight other oil and gas workers who died under similar circumstances in different parts of the country. As thousands continue to seek work in the oil fields of the Interior West, CDC has added hydrocarbon inhalation to the long list of ways the oil and gas industry can kill workers.

Oil and gas extraction work has a death rate about six to seven times higher than the average job, trumping the construction industry and other mining sectors. Its hazards include working with heavy equipment and toxic materials, outside and in all kinds of weather—and often alone. Western oil and gas workers have died in 90-foot falls, toxic gas inhalations, vehicle crashes, crushings and rendings by equipment, and explosions. Many are contract workers, who often lack training and familiarity with equipment.

An oil and gas worker in New Mexico performs a fall rescue drill. Falls are the fifth most common cause of death for oil and gas workers. Photograph courtesy of the US government.

Moreover, to save money, companies have been known to hang on to old and outdated equipment, or to take shortcuts on safety shields and railings. Industry critics say companies’ rush to produce means often overlooking worker safety. In 2007, Kim Floyd, head of Wyoming AFL-CIO, told HCN, “(The oil and gas industry) treats employees like a commodity.”

Lax regulations are also to blame, Rebecca Reindel, senior safety and health specialist for AFL-CIO, said. “I would agree (with Floyd’s statement). But it’s also because oil and gas is exempt from a lot of safety and health regulations that other industries have to follow.” Take benzene: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHAs) standards for benzene exposure in most industries is one part per million (ppm); for oil and gas, it’s 10 ppm. 

Journalists at Inside Energy found that 366 oil and gas workers died on the job between 2011 and 2013. Texas, rife with such jobs, had the highest number of deaths, at 156, but North Dakota had the highest fatality rate, at 75 deaths per 100,000 workers—about 3 times the national rate for the industry. (New Mexico and Oklahoma also had higher-than-industry-average death rates). North Dakota’s oil and gas worker death rate has doubled since 2007, according to an AFL-CIO report. The industry’s record in the state is so dismal that it has made North Dakota the most dangerous state for workers (followed by Wyoming), driving its overall workplace fatality rate up to 14.9 deaths per 100,000 workers. 

Recently, the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) launched the Fatalities in Oil and Gas Extraction database (FOG) to track oil and gas deaths, with their first report expected soon. FOG may be an improvement on what we know about oil and gas deaths, but the database will be unable to track all relevant fatalities. NIOSH, like other organizations that track workplace deaths, relies on a combination of media coverage and reports by OSHA. And that agency does not track fatalities stemming from on-the-job vehicle crashes and work-triggered illnesses. 

Besides, some deaths are unexplained. Last year, NIOSH began an investigation after seeing a handful of unexplained deaths that occurred while the deceased was working with fuel tanks. Officials suspected some of these might have been caused by hydrocarbon inhalation because, when the hatches of oil tanks are opened, the gases and vapors trapped inside at high pressures can be released in high concentrations. Hydrocarbon inhalation can cause asphyxiation, narcotic effects, arrhythmia, hypoxia, and respiratory depression.

NIOSH found nine fuel tank-related deaths that happened between 2010 and 2014, six of which occurred in 2014 (three occurred in Colorado, three in North Dakota, and one each in Montana, Texas, and Oklahoma).

All of the cases happened when the worker was alone or unobserved. In at least one case, the deceased had sought medical attention for symptoms during prior work with fuel tanks. In one case, a gas monitor worn by the deceased showed high levels of toxic gases and vapors (more than ten times the recommended exposure level), and low levels of oxygen around the time of the incident.

Investigators also found that many fuel tanks emitted concentrations of toxic gases and vapors up to four times the recommended exposure level, and that hydrocarbons near the open hatches of fuel tanks often exceeded safe levels.

A plume of hydrocarbon gas and vapors escapes from an oil production tank hatch. Infrared photograph courtesy of CDC.

NIOSH has issued new safety recommendations for the oil and gas industry, including implementing new systems to let workers monitor fuel tanks remotely, safety training for workers on the hazards of fuel tanks, the use of self-contained breathing apparatuses and gas monitors, and new emergency procedures.

Kenny Jordan, executive director of the Association of Energy Service Companies, said the industry is working hard to reduce the overall fatality rate. “Any fatality is a bad fatality, and we obviously want to make that zero. Everyone’s cognizant of the issue, and the industry is trying to make improvements. We’re moving in the right direction.”

Kindra McQuillan is an editorial intern for High Country News. 

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