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Mysterious Death Uncovers Risk In Federal Oil Field Rules

Posted by on Mar. 30, 2016 at 7:41 PM
  • 12 Replies

Mysterious Death Uncovers Risk In Federal Oil Field Rules

An oil field truck is used to make a transfer at oil-storage tanks in Williston, N.D., in 2014. It was atop tanks like these that oil worker Dustin Bergsing, 21, was found dead.

An oil field truck is used to make a transfer at oil-storage tanks in Williston, N.D., in 2014. It was atop tanks like these that oil worker Dustin Bergsing, 21, was found dead.

Eric Gay/AP

On a cold night in January 2012, Dustin Bergsing climbed on top of a crude oil storage tank in North Dakota's Bakken oil field. His job was to open the hatch on top and drop a rope inside to measure the level of oil. But just after midnight, a co-worker found him dead, slumped next to the open hatch.

Even though an autopsy showed Bergsing had hydrocarbons in his blood — things like benzene and butane — the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's investigation found no safety violations. And it didn't fine the oil company.

Reporter Mike Soraghan came across Bergsing's case while researching oil field fatalities for EnergyWire, an online business publication.

"A 21-year-old kid just sort of dies out in the middle of nowhere and nothing happens?" Soraghan says. "I just remember reading through it and thinking, 'That's it?' "

With the help of Dr. Bob Harrison, who specializes in occupational and environmental medicine, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a pattern was uncovered: nine oil workers found dead on oil pads in the past six years, many of them young and otherwise healthy.

Based on Bergsing's autopsy, Harrison believes they passed out after they opened oil-tank hatches and were engulfed in large amounts of petroleum gases.

"It was one of those aha moments that I have every so often in my career as a doctor treating patients with toxic-chemical exposures," he says.

Families of at least six of the deceased are suing their employers. Since last year, NIOSH has warned the industry about the hazard, but exposure continues — in part because another federal agency's rules make it difficult to use safer measurement methods.

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health via YouTube YouTube

The Bureau of Land Management is in charge of oil development on federal land, and critics say the agency is wary of technology that might not be as accurate as putting guys on top of tanks to measure oil by hand. There's public money at stake — royalties that are paid by the oil companies on the exact amount of oil coming out of the ground.

"If it's a public asset, then the taxpayer deserves to have their money, their assets protected," says Steve Wells, who oversees oil production for the agency.

And since 1989 — the last time the rules were updated — the industry practice for protecting those assets is to measure them manually by dropping a rope into the tank, as Dustin Bergsing did when he died.

The agency is updating those rules this year, but Wells won't say whether the new rules will allow automated oil measurement. One thing the rules definitely won't do is ban measuring oil levels by hand.

"You have some very old facilities, very simple tanks, so the idea is that we're trying to accommodate all the different operations," Wells said. And with 83,000 oil wells on federal land and a $2,000-per-tank cost for automatic measurement equipment, Wells said requiring such an upgrade would cause some companies to shut down.

Truck driver Ryan Ehlis makes his living hauling crude oil in North Dakota, and has some firsthand experience with the dangerous fumes. Like Dustin Bergsing, he spends a lot of time climbing atop large oil-storage tanks and opening their hatches to measure the oil.

He says he tries to avoid the gases, but just the day before, he'd had a dizzy spell after climbing back down from one of the tanks.

"If there's gas in your face, kind of hold your breath and then get your gauge and then step away and get into the fresh air and [take a deep breath] — and then go do something again," he says. "But you can't avoid it entirely."

That's needless, nonsensical exposure, says Dennis Schmitz, an oil and gas safety trainer. Automatic measurement is common in Canada and in the offshore oil and gas industry, which isn't regulated by the Bureau of Land Management. In fact, Schmitz used such equipment on tanker ships.

"And I never really questioned, 'Why is it in the offshore environment that I don't breathe the vapors there, and I do breathe them here?' " he says.

Ehlis says he has thought about getting a safer job — particularly after seeing a truck on an oil-well pad explode into "nothing but a huge orange fireball probably 50 feet in the air" — but that nothing in the area pays as well.

So Ehlis keeps driving, keeps climbing oil tanks and opening their hatches, keeps lowering a rope into the tank to measure the level.

This story was produced by Inside Energy, a public media collaboration focused on America's energy issues. Contact reporter Emily Guerin at eguerin@insideenergy.org.

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by on Mar. 30, 2016 at 7:41 PM
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canadianmom1974
by Platinum Member on Mar. 30, 2016 at 8:38 PM
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Not that they'd probably approve the expense, but the simple solution if they insist on the manual measurement is to have the operators wear oxygen tanks/masks. Most oilfield employees should already be trained in wearing one, part of the H2S safety training is putting one on under a certain time limit.
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NWP
by guerrilla girl on Mar. 30, 2016 at 10:16 PM

Its sad that such an investment isn't considered worth it.

Quoting canadianmom1974: Not that they'd probably approve the expense, but the simple solution if they insist on the manual measurement is to have the operators wear oxygen tanks/masks. Most oilfield employees should already be trained in wearing one, part of the H2S safety training is putting one on under a certain time limit.


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Bookwormy
by Ruby Member on Mar. 30, 2016 at 10:51 PM
If auto measure is too expensive then oxygen masks should be the way to go. Saving lives should not be too expensive.

Quoting canadianmom1974: Not that they'd probably approve the expense, but the simple solution if they insist on the manual measurement is to have the operators wear oxygen tanks/masks. Most oilfield employees should already be trained in wearing one, part of the H2S safety training is putting one on under a certain time limit.
Bookwormy
by Ruby Member on Mar. 30, 2016 at 10:52 PM
Plus the masks will save a mint in lawsuits.

Quoting canadianmom1974: Not that they'd probably approve the expense, but the simple solution if they insist on the manual measurement is to have the operators wear oxygen tanks/masks. Most oilfield employees should already be trained in wearing one, part of the H2S safety training is putting one on under a certain time limit.
Sisteract
by Whoopie on Mar. 30, 2016 at 11:00 PM
2 moms liked this

And this is why business regulations are an absolute must...without such, many companies cut corners in the quest for the almighty buck.

Opening a hatch and dropping a rope down to measure oil levels? Sounds rather archaic and lacking in precision.

NWP
by guerrilla girl on Mar. 31, 2016 at 7:20 AM

Yes. Absolutely it is

Quoting Sisteract:

And this is why business regulations are an absolute must...without such, many companies cut corners in the quest for the almighty buck.

Opening a hatch and dropping a rope down to measure oil levels? Sounds rather archaic and lacking in precision.


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bluerooffarm
by Bronze Member on Mar. 31, 2016 at 7:34 AM

My husband works in the natural gas fields, but I would surmise there are similarities.  The tanks he works on actually have auto-measure devices and yet the workers don't believe them.  They're "always screwed up" and the contents of the tanke "fouls up those blasted things."  So they send the young guys up on the top.  They do have these face mask things, but many of them won't wear them.  Or if they want to they get hounded for taking too long to go back to the truck to get them.  

Stages make the operators more money, so they don't want to stop for anything.  If someone yells "Full Stop" over the radio, they are supposed to stop the site and shut down.  But they usually don't.  The operator will actually yell Belay that.  Like it's a damn pirate ship.  

Sigh....okay rant over.  It's just frustrating to hear hubby's stories.

Quoting Bookwormy: If auto measure is too expensive then oxygen masks should be the way to go. Saving lives should not be too expensive.
Quoting canadianmom1974: Not that they'd probably approve the expense, but the simple solution if they insist on the manual measurement is to have the operators wear oxygen tanks/masks. Most oilfield employees should already be trained in wearing one, part of the H2S safety training is putting one on under a certain time limit.


Bookwormy
by Ruby Member on Mar. 31, 2016 at 7:39 AM
I'm so sorry. Tell him to wear the mask. Seriously.

Quoting bluerooffarm:

My husband works in the natural gas fields, but I would surmise there are similarities.  The tanks he works on actually have auto-measure devices and yet the workers don't believe them.  They're "always screwed up" and the contents of the tanke "fouls up those blasted things."  So they send the young guys up on the top.  They do have these face mask things, but many of them won't wear them.  Or if they want to they get hounded for taking too long to go back to the truck to get them.  

Stages make the operators more money, so they don't want to stop for anything.  If someone yells "Full Stop" over the radio, they are supposed to stop the site and shut down.  But they usually don't.  The operator will actually yell Belay that.  Like it's a damn pirate ship.  

Sigh....okay rant over.  It's just frustrating to hear hubby's stories.

Quoting Bookwormy: If auto measure is too expensive then oxygen masks should be the way to go. Saving lives should not be too expensive.

Quoting canadianmom1974: Not that they'd probably approve the expense, but the simple solution if they insist on the manual measurement is to have the operators wear oxygen tanks/masks. Most oilfield employees should already be trained in wearing one, part of the H2S safety training is putting one on under a certain time limit.

bluerooffarm
by Bronze Member on Mar. 31, 2016 at 7:41 AM
1 mom liked this

Thankfully, he's old.  LOL.  He's 38.  They think that's too old to climb up the tanks.  He's nearly the oldest on site.  Natural gas is a young man's "game".

Quoting Bookwormy: I'm so sorry. Tell him to wear the mask. Seriously.
Quoting bluerooffarm:

My husband works in the natural gas fields, but I would surmise there are similarities.  The tanks he works on actually have auto-measure devices and yet the workers don't believe them.  They're "always screwed up" and the contents of the tanke "fouls up those blasted things."  So they send the young guys up on the top.  They do have these face mask things, but many of them won't wear them.  Or if they want to they get hounded for taking too long to go back to the truck to get them.  

Stages make the operators more money, so they don't want to stop for anything.  If someone yells "Full Stop" over the radio, they are supposed to stop the site and shut down.  But they usually don't.  The operator will actually yell Belay that.  Like it's a damn pirate ship.  

Sigh....okay rant over.  It's just frustrating to hear hubby's stories.

Quoting Bookwormy: If auto measure is too expensive then oxygen masks should be the way to go. Saving lives should not be too expensive.
Quoting canadianmom1974: Not that they'd probably approve the expense, but the simple solution if they insist on the manual measurement is to have the operators wear oxygen tanks/masks. Most oilfield employees should already be trained in wearing one, part of the H2S safety training is putting one on under a certain time limit.


Bookwormy
by Ruby Member on Mar. 31, 2016 at 8:29 AM
1 mom liked this
Thank goodness. Of course, to me at 45yo he doesn't seem old, lol!

Quoting bluerooffarm:

Thankfully, he's old.  LOL.  He's 38.  They think that's too old to climb up the tanks.  He's nearly the oldest on site.  Natural gas is a young man's "game".

Quoting Bookwormy: I'm so sorry. Tell him to wear the mask. Seriously.



Quoting bluerooffarm:

My husband works in the natural gas fields, but I would surmise there are similarities.  The tanks he works on actually have auto-measure devices and yet the workers don't believe them.  They're "always screwed up" and the contents of the tanke "fouls up those blasted things."  So they send the young guys up on the top.  They do have these face mask things, but many of them won't wear them.  Or if they want to they get hounded for taking too long to go back to the truck to get them.  

Stages make the operators more money, so they don't want to stop for anything.  If someone yells "Full Stop" over the radio, they are supposed to stop the site and shut down.  But they usually don't.  The operator will actually yell Belay that.  Like it's a damn pirate ship.  

Sigh....okay rant over.  It's just frustrating to hear hubby's stories.

Quoting Bookwormy: If auto measure is too expensive then oxygen masks should be the way to go. Saving lives should not be too expensive.



Quoting canadianmom1974: Not that they'd probably approve the expense, but the simple solution if they insist on the manual measurement is to have the operators wear oxygen tanks/masks. Most oilfield employees should already be trained in wearing one, part of the H2S safety training is putting one on under a certain time limit.

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