A series of mysterious oilfield worker deaths is shedding light on the dangers of vapors from oil storage tanks. At least nine workers have died from exposure to the fumes since 2010, prompting a recent alert by NIOSH and OSHA.
Until the death of Colorado truck driver Jim Freemyer on July 14, 2015, the energy industry was in firm denial regarding the dangers of toxic fumes in and around oil storage tanks on drilling sites. Part of Freemyer’s duties as an oil hauler required that he climb to the top of storage tanks, open a hatch and manually measure the level of oil in the tank. The 59-year-old suffered “sudden cardiac death” when his heart was overwhelmed by toxic gases and lack of oxygen in the surrounding air.
The danger of vapors from storage tanks has been poorly understood in the oil field, even flatly denied at times. But documents from the litigation that followed Freemyer’s death map out in chilling detail just how toxic gases from oil field storage tanks can kill people.
All crude oil has toxic compounds called volatile hydrocarbons, such as benzene, butane and propane. Shale oil, such as that from Colorado’s Niobrara formation, has more than conventional crude. It’s related to why trains loaded with shale crude explode when they derail.
Lighter than the rest of the oil, the vapors bubble up in storage tanks and collect above the liquid. They can burst out of the tank with enough force to knock off a worker’s hard hat.
And at high concentrations, the hydrocarbons can displace so much oxygen that they asphyxiate victims, even outdoors. At the same time, the chemicals get in the blood and disrupt the heart. In a cruel twist, they disorient the brain so victims often don’t try to escape the fumes.
At Farrar & Ball, we’re encouraged that industry regulators are finally recognizing the dangers from oil tank vapors, but these organizations are notoriously powerless to enforce real workplace safety change in the industry. It’s now time for employers in the oil patch to provide their workers with the proper training and safety equipment to keep them safe.