Fatal Oil Field Accidents Near Open Hatches On Storage Tanks

In early 2016, National Public Radio (NPR) reported on a series of mysterious deaths in U.S. oilfields over a six-year period.

The death of a 21-year-old worker in the Bakken region in January 2012 was one of those fatalities. One part of the worker's job was to climb up to the top of a crude oil storage tank, open the hatch and drop a rope into the tank to measure the oil level. It was the last thing he did, because a co-worker later found him dead, laying next to the open hatch.

No Citations, No Fines

An autopsy revealed various hydrocarbons, including benzene and butane, in the man's blood. However, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which investigates every workplace fatality, did not find any safety violations, and the oil company involved did not face any fines.

Eight Similar Deaths

Ultimately, an investigative journalist working with Dr. Bob Harrison, a specialist in occupational and environmental medicine, uncovered a pattern of nine oil workers that mysteriously died in oil field accidents over the previous six years. Like the individual profiled, a number of them were healthy young workers.

Dr. Harrison believes each worker passed out after being overcome by petroleum gases escaping from open hatches. Although the procedure is dangerous and even deadly, the process of manually dropping a rope into a tank is a cost-effective way the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has found to accurately measure oil recovered on public lands. Accurate measurements are important since royalties accrue for every barrel of oil extracted.

Automation Allegedly Too Expensive

Automated oil measurement methods exist, but the estimated cost is $2,000 per tank. A spokesperson for the BLM says that the cost is too prohibitive for many companies involved in operating some of the 83,000 oil wells situated on federal land. An oil and gas safety trainer interviewed for the NPR article says that worker exposure to deadly gases is an avoidable hazard. Automatic measurement is the norm in areas not regulated by the Bureau of Land Management, such as offshore and in Canada.

State worker's compensation laws address workplace injuries and fatalities. In some cases, personal injury statutes apply as well. If you or a family member is a victim of a Bakken oilfield accident, it is possible to discuss your case with us, free of charge and without obligation. Our firm fights hard to preserve the full legal rights of our clients. To learn more, please contact us.

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