Colorado oil field deaths related to toxic vapor exposure

Mar 18 2016

America’s oil boom has created high-paying jobs for workers willing to put in long hours and a lot of hard work. Unfortunately, however, oil field jobs also come with serious dangers – both known and unknown. Too many oil workers have suffered serious injuries or lost their lives because oil companies put profits ahead of safety.

Over the past five years, nine oil workers – including three in Colorado – have died while “tank gauging,” or manually opening storage tanks to gauge the level of crude oil inside. When these tanks are opened from above, they often emit high levels of toxic vapors that can overwhelm the worker, even though they are vented into the open air.

Earlier this year, two oil field companies were fined a total of nearly $15,000 related to the death of one of those Colorado workers in June 2014. The worker was a 57-year-old man from Greeley.

One of the most frustrating aspects about these fatal accidents is that they could have easily been avoided. It is common (and often mandatory) for tank gauging to be done manually by having a worker open the top of a tank and conduct a visual inspection to gauge oil levels. But safer methods exist and are being used elsewhere, including methods that rely on electronic gauges and don’t require workers to get so close to toxic fumes.

Another frustrating aspect of this case is that the fines issued to these two companies were approximately half of what OSHA originally proposed. There was seemingly no explanation provided for why the fines were reduced.

In response to these nine deaths, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued a new hazard alert related to tank gauging. Still, it remains to be seen whether oil field companies will truly make worker safety a priority.