A reporter researching oil field fatalities for the online business journal EnergyWire helped uncover a pattern of mysterious deaths, mostly of young, healthy workers who died atop or near oil field hatches they had opened to measure oil well levels by hand.
The death of 21-year-old Dustin Bergsing, whose lifeless body was found slumped next to an open oil hatch in 2012, was unsettling to reporter Mike Soraghan because federal safety regulators found no safety violations, so no fines were issued, and no corrective action was taken that could prevent such deaths in the future.
Both the industry and the government failed to address the problem despite an autopsy on Mr. Bersing’s body that found benzene, butane, and other hydrocarbons in his blood and a pattern of similar deaths that occurred over the past six years.
With the help of the National Institute of Safety and Health (NIOSH) and Dr. Bob Harrison, an occupational and environmental medicine specialist, Mr. Soraghan found that nine other oil workers had been found dead on oil pads in just six years. Like Mr. Bergsing, many of those workers were young and healthy.
Dr. Harrison believes these workers were overcome by petroleum gases that escaped from the oil tank hatches when they were opened.
According to NPR, families of at least six of the deceased oil field workers are suing their employers. NIOSH even warned the oil and gas industry about these hazards, but the exposures that killed 10 workers in little more than a decade continue.
Most of these wells – some 83,000 of them – are on public land, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which is in charge of oil drilling on federal land, thinks the best way to protect public assets and the royalties they earn is to manually measure oil levels by manually dropping a rope into the tank, even when other countries, including Canada and other major oil-producers, are using automated oil measurement.
Dennis Schmitz, an oil and gas safety trainer, told NPR that the continued exposures are “needless” and “nonsensical” because protections exist in the offshore oil and gas industry and in other countries that prevent workers from inhaling noxious petroleum fumes. In fact, Schmitz used such equipment on tanker ships.
Cost to the industry is also a priority, apparently. The BLM told NPR that it would cost $2,000 per tank to install automatic measurement equipment – an upgrade that would cost some oil companies to shut down because of cost.
NPR reports that the BLM is introducing some changes to safety rules this year, but the agency declined to say whether it would allow automated oil measurement systems on public land.
“One thing the rules definitely won’t do is ban measuring oil levels by hand,” NPR reported.