OSHA, industry groups warn about oil tank deaths

By Mike Soraghan | 04/27/2015 09:03 AM EDT

Federal worker safety officials and drilling industry groups are warning about the danger of petroleum vapors whooshing from crude oil tanks at well sites.

Federal worker safety officials and drilling industry groups are warning about the danger of petroleum vapors whooshing from crude oil tanks at well sites.

They are distributing a new alert to warn workers and others that the vapors can instantly kill workers who inhale them. It also warns that the highly flammable vapors could easily explode.

"Your life can change in a single breath or with one spark," the alert states in large type.


The alert was developed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and National STEPS (Service, Transmission, Exploration and Production Safety) Network, an industry safety group.

"We expect that the infographic will be (conservatively) distributed to around 100,000 individuals in our industry segment throughout the US and Canada," STEPS Chairman Rick Ingram wrote in an email last week announcing OSHA’s sign-off to those who’d worked on it.

Ingram said the hazards from petroleum vapors will be discussed further at a meeting of federal and industry safety officials May 21 in Houston.

The national alert is milder than one on the same topic issued in February by an industry safety group in the Bakken Shale region, where most of the known inhalation deaths have occurred. The February alert by the MonDaks Safety Network warned that "One breath could be death" (EnergyWire, Feb. 24).

At least nine oil workers have died since 2010 from inhaling toxic amounts of vapors while measuring crude oil in storage tanks at well sites, according to NIOSH (EnergyWire, April 13).

While many in the oil field recognize the lethal danger of hydrogen sulfide, or "sour gas," the hazard from volatile hydrocarbons remains poorly understood. There has been little mention of the petrochemicals, also called volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, in industry orientation materials.

All crude oil has compounds called volatile hydrocarbons such as benzene, butane and propane. Shale crude sometimes has more of these compounds than conventional oil. It’s related to why shale oil is more prone to explode in rail cars. The chemicals bubble up from the crude oil and collect in storage tanks (EnergyWire, Oct. 27).

The vapors can disorient people to the point that they’re unable to escape the lethal effect of the vapors.

OSHA researchers last year found levels of butane at a tank hatch 48 times the level considered to be an "immediate danger to life and health" (IDLH), and butane was only one of several compounds in the sample.

Public health researchers have indicated that the airborne chemicals that killed the workers also raise questions about whether the vapors pose a threat to people who live nearby. But they say there is little or no published research on the topic, and NIOSH researchers say their findings can be applied only to workplace hazards.

The only death in which OSHA is known to have cited an employer in connection with VOC inhalation hazards occurred last year in North Dakota. Zachary Buckles, 20, a flowback operator working at a Bakken Shale oil site across the Missouri River from Williston, N.D., died in late April. OSHA fined the company he worked for $2,800 for failing to train its workers in the hazards of petroleum vapors.

The alert says employers should assess worksites for inhalation risks and provide oxygen masks and monitoring devices to workers, along with training about the hazard. It also recommends finding ways for workers to measure the tanks without opening "thief hatches" by hand.

But in many states, including North Dakota, some crude oil measurements are required to be done by hand.