Harrison and Colleagues Uncover Lethal Chemical Exposures at Oil & Gas Facilities

Photo courtesy of Todd Jordan, OSHA
Photo courtesy of Todd Jordan, Occupational Safety and Health Administration

In 2013, COEH faculty Dr. Robert Harrison received a report of a young worker who died at an oil and gas facility in North Dakota. Alone on the night shift, the 21 year old was gauging fluid levels through a small hatch door of a storage tank at the well site. Found unconscious near the open hatch, co-workers initiated CPR. Transported to hospital, he was pronounced dead 2 hours later, according to the CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report by lead author Harrison, Clinical Professor of Medicine in the Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, UCSF.

Discovering a second death in 2010 of a worker performing tank gauging, Harrison began to suspect the cause and began an investigation with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and health and the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The results would reveal a total of nine similar deaths from January 2010 to March 2015 – peaking with six fatalities in 2014.

All of the victims were working alone at the time of the incident and found collapsed on a tank or catwalk or the base of the catwalk stairs. In five cases, the hatch was still open when the worker was discovered, note the authors. And although “toxicologic data on hydrocarbon gases and vapors (HGVs) were not consistently collected during autopsy, they were noted as a cause of death for three workers,” confirming the hypothesis that the deaths occurred as a result of exposure to HGVs and oxygen-deficient atmospheres after opening the hatches of storage tanks.

Although safety hazards in the oil and gas extraction industry are well-known, few reports address chemical exposure and acute occupational illnesses, notes the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Following the revelations of the investigation, OSHA, NIOSH, and industry stakeholders issued a hazard alert on tank gauging and the Bureau of Land Management proposed changes to current federal regulations encouraging the replacement of outdated technologies and practices with already available remote sampling tools that could reduce or eliminate worker exposures.

The Report received extensive media attention with coverage including NPR, the Wall Street Journal, Denver Post, and San Antonio Channel 4, among others. Most recently, the Denver Post published a four-part series after a year-long investigation of safety in the petroleum extraction industry.

Read the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (pdf).

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