How hard can it be to establish the cause of death in Bakken oil field
fatal workplace injuries? According to North Dakota forensic examiner,
William Massello, it's possible for one person to die from inhalation
while another may not show any ill effects from toxic volatile compounds
exposure. He says that relating a worker's death to his work is not
an exact science as people believe.
When examiners are unable to explain the role of hydrogen sulfide or volatile
vapors in Bakken workplace fatalities, they check off
no as cause of death. Although scientists have established toxic levels for
volatile compounds, current studies are evaluating existing limits.
In four cases of Bakken fatal workplace injury, authorities first blamed
hydrogen sulfide poisoning because it is a known killer in the Bakken
oil fields. Less recognized is the fact that petroleum vapors also produce
sudden death. And when authorities discovered that the suspected wells
did not emit hydrogen sulfide, they dropped work-related as the cause
of death even though all four men had the same job of measuring levels
in petroleum tanks.
In 2013 after ruling out hydrogen sulfide inhalation as reason for death,
examiner William Massello concluded that cardiac
arrhythmia from natural causes was responsible. The insurance company denied the
claim for workman comp benefits.
According to an occupational medicine specialist investigating fatal chemical
exposures in the workplace, Robert Harrison said it is possible that coroners
and medical examiners are overlooking symptoms of petroleum poisoning
in Bakken oil field fatalities.
Why would a 75-year-old Bakken worker without a history of heart problems
and who recently passed a physical die of an enlarged heart from hardening
of the arteries as listed on the death certificate? Why were there detectable
levels of butane and propane, components of Bakken crude, found in his
blood test results?
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found high, non-lethal
levels of benzene and VOC's in a 2014 study of Wyoming Bakken oil
field flowback operators. The NIOSH is also studying whether acutely toxic
gases whooshing out of tanks caused oil field fatalities.
Companies should provide respirators to truck drivers and flowback employees
working near tanks and they should not work alone around Bakken crude
fumes. To increase safety, workers should measure tank levels without
opening hatches. Unfortunately, North Dakota and other states still require
manual measurements taken in person.
Bakken crude contains dangerous volatile compounds. Exposure is common. Please
contact us if you have experienced workplace injury from toxic exposure.