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Nine Oilfield Deaths Linked to Tank Gauging and Taking Oil Samples

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5-18-04Nine Oil Industry Deaths are Linked to Tank Gauging and Taking Oil Samples

Article by Stevie McHugh

In recent weeks, federal health officials have sounded a national alarm regarding a deadly trend in the oilfields of America. Oilfield workers and truck drivers who are either tank gauging or taking oil samples for more testing are dying as a result of inhaling toxic hydrocarbon chemicals.

Wrong! Not Death by Natural Causes

Nine oilfield fatalities in five years have been linked to this deadly hazard largely obscured due to errant autopsy findings. If coroners fail to run the appropriate toxicology tests for the chemicals a deceased oilfield worker has been exposed to, the common result is that the worker is deemed to have died of natural causes.

A medical examiner found, for example, that 51-year-old Joe Ray Sherman’s death last year on an oil patch in Weld County, Colorado, was caused by heart disease. He actually did suffer from a heart condition, making it no surprise that he suffered a fatal coronary attack. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has revealed that Sherman was part of a pattern in which victims exposed to high pressure gases and vapors on production tanks were found dead after having been working alone or unobserved by others.

The Specific Hazard

These highly dangerous exposures occur when production tank hatches are manually opened, releasing a high-pressure plume of hydrocarbon vapors and gases. The gases and vapors commonly contain such toxic ingredients as benzene, which is a carcinogen; ethane; butane; and propane.

Hydrocarbons in high concentrations are extremely dangerous and can cause explosions, asphyxiation, sudden death, and disorientation. Breathing the chemicals in certain amounts or concentrations often proves to be deadly.

Oilfield Workers at Risk

Oilfield work is highly dangerous. Statistics from 2005 through 2009 showed that the fatality rate for the oil and gas industry was seven times higher than general industry and 2.5 times higher than the construction industry. Training is desperately needed, for workers to have the knowledge required to avoid deadly mistakes. However, the experienced and inexperienced both have been victims of this deadly tank hatch hazard.

The following is basic information about the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the nine workers linked to the hatch hazard:

  • In 2010, an oilfield worker was discovered next to an oil storage tank, slumped over the catwalk.
  • In 2012, a worker who had been gauging a crude oil tank was discovered dead on the tank battery.
  • In 2013, a truck driver was found slumped over the top of railing on a tank battery; he had been transferring crude oil.
  • The following six fatalities occurred in 2014:
    • A truck driver who it appeared was measuring the volume of liquid from the top of a tank battery was found slumped over on the catwalk, next to a tank. He had been pumping and hauling crude oil.
    • As an oilfield worker was pulling an oil sample from a tank, he lost consciousness and fell backwards over the catwalk guardrail.
    • A worker for an oil transport company was found nonresponsive next to a crude oil tank.
    • The driver of an oil tanker tractor-trailer died when collecting crude oil samples.
    • An oilfield worker whose hourly duty was to gauge the amount of liquid in three oil tanks on site was found dead next to a tank battery.
    • A flow tester gauging a crude oil tank was found face down and dead in the upper hatch of a crude oil storage tank.

While American Petroleum Institute spokesperson Zachary Cikanek points out, in relationship to this story, that in the decade ending 2013, the injury and illness rate among oilfield workers dropped by 40%, it is obvious that much more needs to be done to protect workers from oilfield hazards such as toxic gases.

What Can be Done?

Finding successful strategies for ensuring the training of oilfield workers is said to be particularly challenging, due to the often nomadic nature of the work.

What do you think, Oilfield Families? Is it impractical for workers to always wear respirators when performing these dangerous tasks? Can you help spread the word that checking oil tank hatches has far too often been proving to be deadly? Do you have ideas for solutions to this particular hazard?

Information Source – Denver Post


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Comment(40)

  1. Well …I haul oil in the panhandle of Texas and think that getting sample from top of tank .(thiefing) is …an unnecessary risk ..when you can get sample off the fly and more accurate …as far as gauges they should all have digital or gauge on outside of tank

  2. they are not high pressure. They are taking the easy way and taking samples from the thief hatch and more than likely getting hit with H2S.

    1. I have seen tanks with extraordinary high pressure and have had my hard hat knocked off numerous times. I’ve also been ‘gassed’ several times to the extent that it has brought me to my knees and I experienced lightheadedness, nausea and headaches for some time after the event. Every time one goes on top of a tank battery to API oil you have to be aware of this hazard and pay close attention to the wind direction and your h2s monitor. If the pressure is too high and the wind direction is not in your favor – don’t open the hatch!

      1. Exactly! What crazy person flops a lid open? No mater what type of enardo hatch lid, unlit have and hold your hand on top and either push down and no feel the spring tension or lift lightly. If vapors are horrible and wind isn’t blowing the vapors away from you do not open the lid.

  3. I am a crude hauler! I run a tank battery that we have to mask up everytime.
    With all the technology out there, I don’t understand why we still need to sample and strap each tank everytime. They have sensors that tell us exactly everything about the oil. On a computer. In a control room. It’s actually triple checking by sampling and strapping. Yes I was worried before this article. Now I am 3 times more worried

    1. I’m also a crude hauler. Lact units, which test and meater oil, are becoming more common here in the Permian Basin, but only on new high producing wells drilled for 1st rate producers. Exterior gauges are cost efficient and can be placed on older tanks and samples taken from the truck. A lot of producers demand an API test though and will not allow transporters to use the gauges because they do not match precisely and they don’t want the seal broken unless you buy the oil. It’s a potentially dangerous paradigm. But as in all industry related rules and regulations, they have to be write in the blood of victims and the tears of the bereaved.

    2. Can’t fix stupid, you can kill it though. But with all this technology wouldn’t you rather fix how dirty and toxic it is!? Imagine what it’s doing to the soil and the air?! It’s already been proven to have messed up the air in pinedale Wyoming, now it’s killing people and you want the scientists to buddy up with you and fix it? HA!

      1. You can’t fix stupid alright! Look in the mirror! Everything around you from your phone,computer automobile etc is full of plastics, all from crude oil and petroleum products. So what’s your plan dumbass? Horse and buggy days again ??

      2. You are one of them environmental guys who likes to bash on industry workers and use a tragedy for a political gain. Hmmmmm FYI resperatoty protection when you first pop the hatch should have saved them.

  4. I work for plains and agree… the only thing about not thiefing the tank is that you have no idea what the bottom is in the tank… but let the pumpers do that.. but then again they are not buying the oil…. They need to figure out how to keep these vapor pressures down when they have these V R U units recovering natural gas vapors on a lease. .. ha ha last night the pressure blew the hatch open and blew my hardhat off when I unlocked the hatch

  5. I am a truck driver that’s hauls crude oil been doing this for over 40 yr and I have to buy all of oil and no problems with nothing all those automatic gauge dose not meet The BLM and federal guide line in buying your oil the only you can it right by going to the top the tank when you open the dome lid just turn your head away from lid it just that easy and I still alive to day

    1. And you will still not be right
      back in the day when a big producer was a 100bbl a day not so much of a problem but when you have a 30 tank battery and it is 1/2 vapor no reason whatsoever to be up top a sample catcher on the truck will have you just as close as api if you do it right

  6. Most companies won’t allow the cause to be verified. Just like oilfield work related recordable incidents.
    Injuries are treated by a web MD. Over a camera diagnosis. Told to buy some motrin.
    The tech tells you after the session to take a few weeks off. Thats been my experience. That way we don’t have to worry about an OSHA recordable.

  7. Most tanks have blow downs to release pressure before opening theif hatches. When opening hatches, open to your side looking away and quickly walk away. I always sample a tank with tanks next to me open so vapors aren’t in my face

  8. A mere 10 lbs is needed to push salt water and oil up the production line and into the top of the salt water tank and oil tank. High pressure well use on the average of about 100 lbs to supply for the dumps and to push liquids up these tanks. There are pressure regulators to drastic reduce the pressure in these tanks.
    Benzene and who knows what other chemicals are being used in fracing some of these high pressure wells. Some of these fumes come back out and end up in these tanks. Chesapeake Energy had the Staumberg Lease off of HWY 83 North of Catarina, Texas that produced certain fumes that would make me dizzy, nauseated and would severely affect my hearing to where I thought I was hearing a Huey overhead. It didn’t have H2S but those other weird smelling fumes would get to you. I would have to take breaks upwind before I could finish working those tanks. Just sharing my experience with some of these hazardous fumes.

  9. “Harry” was up on top of the old flying J trailer with the hatches open. Got a wiff of H2s gas and fell off. Lucky he woke up before it over filled and lit up. Back on the rez, back in the day.

  10. I like how this article mentions nothing about H2S…you have the same if not more of a risk from inhaling harmful fumes from hydrocarbons at a fueling station…. very misinformed article

  11. Retired but worked in petroleum industry for 35 years and know good training of new employees is desperatly needed. A two day course to cover First Aid, WHIMIS and H2S Awareness dose not qualify a guy to work with these products.

  12. As the guy charged with keeping my guys safe I have had this conversation pointless times
    The conversation always ends with API says…..because everyone of these conversation end up with with some collage educated wonder that has no practical experience or a kiss ass that is to scared to have an opinion.
    So we shut up do what isn’t safe in order to feed our families because if you say to much the next crew won’t

    1. Ma’am – please tell your husband that there is ALWAYS vapor emitting out any tank hatch that’s open, even after the initial burst of pressure that everybody’s mentioning about blowing off hard hats and such. He should stay away or upwind from it to the extent possible. He should close the hatch immediately after pulling the sample or gauging the tank. The vapor may contain H2S in a sour area (or if the tank is stagnant). Best to have an H2S detector on and located near the face to alarm if needed. In most cases the vapor is a hydrocarbon mixture containing lots of different chemicals including benzene. All these hydrocarbons have similar acute effects: lightheadedness, euphoria, headache…… they may also cause cardiac arrhythmia in susceptible individuals. He should not spend any more time near the vapor than absolutely necessary – which may mean checking API oil quality on another tank top or on the ground. As many have said, it’s best not to need to open the tank at all. Unfortunately, some producers (particularly those on BLM leases) may not be able to avoid the old manual method for some time. DO NOT linger near any open hatch, stay completely away if possible – but at least limit contact. He (and all of you) will be OK if you keep this in mind.

  13. My little brother, 29 years old, was an oil hauler found slumped over a hatch dead on Valentine’s Day this year in north central Texas. He was hit with a leathal dose of h2s. His company still does not even provide respirators. Something needs to be done in the industry to provide a safer work environment. The technology is available to prevent these deaths, but these companies are not being forced to shell out the money to protect their employees. It disgusts me. Everyone involved in oilfield work is putting their life on the line to feed their families, and some, like my brother, are leaving their families behind because the bottom line is more important to the companies than human lives.

    1. Randall,
      I can’t tell you how grieved I am that your little brother was one of the victims of this preventable hazard. You and your family have been on my heart ever since I read your comment a few days ago. I will keep y’all in my prayers.

      Please accept my condolences.

      Warm regards,
      Stevie McHugh
      Contributor, Oilfield Families of America

  14. Why can’t the bottom 4′ of a storage tank have site a glass and a sample port?
    That along with automated tank measuring systems would eliminate the need to thief and measure from the top hatch.

  15. We should fallow Canada’s lead,they are not allowed up on the tanks and buy all their oil off the side of the truck and it works out perfect ! they been doing it for years that way !

  16. I haul primarily for Devon energy and we do not ever go on top of their tanks to work oil. We work every load as it comes on the truck. In addition we hook up a vapor return line to vent fumes back to the tank. The risk of us inhaling any type of gas is almost eliminated by using this method

  17. Hydrogen sulfide gas is the most dangerous component in sour crudes that are found in most of the Eagle Ford Shale. The reason they die is the high concentration of H2S gases paralysed the musles in the victims chest not allowing him the ability to breathe.
    Without a coworker around there is no one to rescue them and give CPR . All oilfield workers are usualy required to wear alarms that sound and vibrate when H2S is detected and also take classes on H2S safety and CPR.
    It is sad to see any loss of life ,but I personally feel that most deaths are from workers being to complacent in their jobs , cutting couners on safety concerns and just sometimes being in too big of hurry to preform thier jobs safely.
    You can’t be afraid of your job when working with H2S but you must respect its ability to take your life if you let your guard down when working around it.

  18. If a person thinks they have inhaled the h2s gas or any chemical associated with h2c and decided to go to the Doctor to have blood test and urine test done what would they be looking for in the results?

  19. I agree on the point they have no mention of h2s..and to the mention of always having vapors present with an open hatch…if you can’t see em it doesn’t mean they aren’t there..but vapors do cast a shadow in sunlight. Kinda like heat coming from the hood of a car. Just gotta know what to look for.

  20. Well down in South West Louisiana they have us go down inside crude oil tanks to gauge them, and other tanks,

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