EnergyWire's Soraghan discusses oil field death investigation

The Bureau of Labor Statistics' latest census of workplace fatalities shows oil field deaths increased significantly in 2014. EnergyWire's Mike Soraghan has been investigating the deaths of two oil field workers and has reported on them in EnergyWire this week. On today's The Cutting Edge, Soraghan discusses the circumstances surrounding the deaths and the industry's reaction.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to The Cutting Edge. The Bureau of Labor Statistics' latest census of workplace fatalities shows an increase in oil field deaths in 2014. EnergyWire's Mike Soraghan has been investigating the two deaths of oil field workers, and he's reported on these two deaths on EnergyWire this week. Mike, your latest story is about David Simpson, who died last year in Oklahoma. Tell us a bit about the circumstances surrounding his death.

Mike Soraghan: Well, he died in March 2014 at an oil site in southern Oklahoma, and the suspicion is that -- the suspicion that he was basically poisoned by some of the fumes coming out of the storage tank at the site. He was a truck driver, and when truck drivers haul their load, they have to measure and sample the crude. To do that, they open a thief hatch at the top of these tanks, and at that point, these fumes can whoosh out. They're petrochemicals called volatile hydrocarbons. And he was doing his work, and a few minutes later, the -- his co-workers look up and he was motionless, and they tried to revive him, but he was dead. And he's about -- he's one of about nine people who federal safety worker officials suspect died in this way.

Monica Trauzzi: So why did OSHA drop the case, and how has Simpson's family sort of navigated the investigation surrounding his death?

Mike Soraghan: OSHA investigated the case, but -- and pretty extensively, but they dropped it because the Oklahoma medical examiner was unable to find a cause of death, ruled -- or classified the cause of death as unknown. Now, Cindy Simpson, David Simpson's widow, has been pretty upset about the extent of -- or lack of extent of the investigation into his death. There was no autopsy done, there was no testing for petrochemicals, and so she has questioned that. And I think the family's kind of at a loss. They're not sure what to do. They had an insurance policy, but the claim was denied, possibly based on inaccurate information. And so I don't -- there's been some discussion of possibly with an attorney, but I don't think the family really knows what they want to do.

Monica Trauzzi: Is there a clear trend that you've seen here of how these types of death are typically handled and investigated?

Mike Soraghan: Well, this is the only case where they're -- that we know of, and we know eight of the nine cases, where there has not been an autopsy done. A number of these cases were initially suspected to be hydrogen sulfide, which is called sour gas. It's a very well-known killer in the oil field, and then they turned out not to be. And a lot of times, authorities at that point kind of shrugged at them until someone else kind of came in and made an issue of it somehow through another investigation or a lawsuit or something like that.

Monica Trauzzi: And earlier this week, you had a separate story that ran in EnergyWire that included some infrared images of workers being exposed to toxic gases. What's been the industry's reaction to that?

Mike Soraghan: The industry's reaction, it's not really their favorite issue to talk about. They did put out an alert earlier this year, kind of alerting people to the dangers of these volatile hydrocarbons, these fumes. But there is still a feeling in the oil field that these hydrocarbons can't hurt you, can't kill you.

Monica Trauzzi: Next steps? I mean, what -- are there efforts to, momentum to move to improve things?

Mike Soraghan: Well, there is this alert that was put out earlier this year, but there is still a sense that these hydrocarbons, these chemicals can't hurt you. Now, in the Colorado case that you mentioned, the widow was awarded benefits, and that got a lot of attention, in relative terms, so that is raising some eyebrows. But I think federal worker safety officials and other worker safety experts would say that we're still really in the beginning stages of this.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, thanks, Mike. Thanks for your time. Great reporting this week. And your latest story runs in today's EnergyWire. Thanks for coming on the show.

Mike Soraghan: Thanks for having me.

Monica Trauzzi: More Cutting Edge coming next Friday. We will see you then.

[End of Audio]



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