Toxic vapors suspected in deaths of three Colorado oil and gas workers

19 May

Add this to the list of ‘benefits’ brought by the oil and gas industry. This article in the Denver Post illustrates somewhat vividly the extent of the toxicity of extraction, and by extension industrial civilization.

The Denver Post

Toxic vapors suspected in deaths of three Colorado oil and gas workers
By Monte Whaley

GREELEY, CO - SEPTEMBER 03: Oil and gas operations are booming in Weld County in Colorado, September 03, 2014. Northern Colorado is on the front lines of the effort to cut reliance on foreign oil, as oil and gas companies explore a formation in Weld County. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

GREELEY, CO – SEPTEMBER 03: Oil and gas operations are booming in Weld County in Colorado, September 03, 2014. Northern Colorado is on the front lines of the effort to cut reliance on foreign oil, as oil and gas companies explore a formation in Weld County. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)


Joe Ray Sherman’s death on a Weld County oil patch last year was tragic but not entirely unexpected.

The 51-year-old was diabetic and suffered heart problems. The native Texan moved to Colorado 20 years ago in hopes that the clear, mountain air would get him healthier.

The Weld County coroner confirmed what many believed, ruling his death while servicing one of the county’s oil wells was caused by heart disease.

But his March 2014 death soon became part of a mysterious puzzle that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is piecing together along with eight other oil field deaths over the past five years.

All of the fatalities occurred at crude oil production tanks, and all the victims were either working alone or weren’t being observed by anyone. Most of the death certificates listed natural causes or heart failure as the cause.

Three of the deaths were in Colorado, three more in North Dakota and one each in Texas, Oklahoma and Montana.

By late April, federal health officials had enough evidence to sound a national alarm over a dangerous trend in America’s oil fields. The men died after inhaling toxic amounts of hydrocarbon chemicals after either tank gauging — measuring the level of oil or other byproducts in tanks coming out of wells — or from taking samples of oil for more testing.

The exposure happens when hatches on production tanks are opened manually and a plume of hydrocarbon gases and vapors are released under high pressure. The gases and vapors can include benzene, a carcinogen, as well as hydrocarbons like ethane, propane and butane.

Besides explosions and asphyxiation, high concentrations of hydrocarbons can cause disorientation and, in some cases, sudden death.

“Just breathing in these chemicals at the right amount can kill,” said Robert Harrison, an occupational medicine physician at the University of California, San Francisco.

Harrison said medical examiners can sometimes miss signs of toxic inhalation during a routine autopsy, which is why some of the victims were thought to have died from natural causes.

“It’s important that coroners run the right toxicology tests for those chemicals emitted from the tanks,” said Harrison.

According to the CDC, inhalation victims can suffer cardiac arrhythmia — or irregular heartbeat — and have problems in getting enough oxygen. Exposure can also cause inadequate ventilation of the lungs.

The CDC and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health signaled the hazards of tank gauging this spring. They, along with the oil and gas industry, recently issued recommendations to companies to limit exposure to hydrocarbons.

The recommendations include providing training of the proper use of respiratory protection and implementing engineering controls, including remote gauging and venting.

“We will do everything we can to get this information out as quickly as possible,” said Kenny Jordan, executive director of the Association of Energy Service Companies.

The sudden hike in tank gauging deaths could be linked to the explosive growth of the oil and gas industry in the United States, which brought in younger, inexperienced workers, Jordan said.

“Over the years, we’ve had a massive buildup in terms of employment and a lot of new employees have come in,” Jordan said. “The best thing we can do is to get the information out there and get into every company’s hands.”

The problem is the nomadic nature of the oil and gas industry. Many oil and gas sites are in remote locations and run by subcontractors who may not have the resources or time to do in-depth training, Harrison said.

“Even just tracking down people for training is a challenge,” said Harrison.

Also, the hazards of tank gauging hasn’t been thoroughly studied, say health and industry officials. But it’s clear the practice can be deadly, even for veteran workers, Harrison said.

“The thing that really captured me is how sudden these deaths are,” Harrison said. “You could have done this work hundreds and hundreds of times. If you get a high enough concentration and someone inhales at one time, you are going down and you are never getting up.”

Sherman, who worked for Now or Never Trucking in Greeley, lost consciousness while pulling an oil sample out of a tank in a site near Kersey, according to reports. Now or Never Trucking declined to comment on the incident.

Sherman fell backward on the 90-degree corner of the catwalk guardrail, where his clothing became hooked to the guardrail.

David Simpson’s death was similar. Simpson died outside Ardmore, Okla., in March 2014, at a Woodford Shale well that produced oil and gas, according to EnergyWire, an online publication that covers the oil and gas industry.

The 57-year-old was found collapsed on a catwalk next to a tank hatch. The Oklahoma medical examiner office listed his cause of death as unknown, although the CDC considers him a likely victim of toxic inhalation.

Oil and gas sites are exempt from many OSHA rules, and working in the industry is considered one of the most hazardous in the country. The national occupational fatality rate for the oil and gas industry was seven times higher than general industry and 2½ times higher than the construction industry between 2005 and 2009, according to the Colorado Department of Health and Environment.

Still, the industry has taken huge strides in worker health and safety, as evidenced by a 40 percent drop in the injury and illness rate from 2003 to 2013, said Zachary Cikanek, spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute.

That is well below the national average for all private sectors, he said.

“Still, our goal is zero incidents, and we remain committed to continuous improvement,” he said.

Harrison says the industry has done a lot of work in the area and “should be commended, but there is still much more they could do.”

The Weld County coroner’s report on Sherman’s death includes a note that “despite the death occurring on a work site, there is no evidence to suggest that the work environment contributed to the death.”

Sherman’s older sister — Sherry Tinney of Junction, Texas — is still wondering what to think about her brother’s death.

“The coroner told us he died of an underlying heart condition, and I’m hoping we were told the truth,” Tinney said.

“He had breathing problems,” she added, “so the doctor suggested he move to a place like Colorado to help his breathing, and he liked it there and he stayed.

“But now I wish he hadn’t.”

Nine deaths in five years

Federal agencies are looking into the deaths of nine oil and gas workers in a five-year span related to suspected toxic inhalation (names and locations were not included):


• A flow tester was expected to gauge a crude oil tank. He was discovered in the early morning facedown in the upper hatch of a crude oil storage tank.

• An employee was assigned to routinely (on the hour) gauge the amount of liquid in three oil tanks on site. The employee was found dead by a delivery driver, at the bottom of the stairs next to the tank battery.

• An oil tanker tractor-trailer driver died while collecting crude oil samples. Coroner reports state he died of cardiovascular disease and sudden cardiac death, and states that toxic gas inhalation and oxygen displacement by volatile hydrocarbons may have been contributory.

• A man working for a transport company was found collapsed and nonresponsive on a catwalk adjacent to a crude oil tank.

• A man lost consciousness while pulling an oil sample out of a tank. He fell backward on the 90-degree corner of the catwalk guardrail.

• A truck driver pumping and hauling crude oil from a tank battery was found on the catwalk next to a tank, slumped over. It appears he was measuring the volume of liquid from the top of the tank battery.


• A truck driver was transferring crude oil from a tank battery and was found slumped over a railing on top of the tank battery.


• A worker tasked with gauging a crude oil tank was found dead on the tank battery.


• A man was found slumped over on the catwalk next to an oil storage tank.

Source: CDC

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