They were usually found slumped over — right at the spot where they were working. They were mostly young and otherwise healthy, but these oil field workers’ deaths were sudden.
One case involved a 21-year-old in a North Dakota Bakken oil field. On a cold evening, he climbed to the top of a crude oil storage tank and flipped back the hatch to lower a rope and take a measurement of the oil. A short time later, he was found dead.
At first, this case, along with a handful of similar deaths, was a mystery. It was 2012 — the American fracking boom was well underway but regulators were struggling to keep up with emerging workplace hazards in a burgeoning industry.
But the investigation of his case at least helped regulators uncover the invisible, lurking threat in oil storage tanks: toxic gases and vapors that can include benzene, a known carcinogen, and hydrocarbons such as ethane, butane and propane. When stored under high pressure and then suddenly released by an open hatch, the vapors can trigger explosions, asphyxiation and, if concentrations are high enough, sudden death.
While the vapors are dangerous, related deaths are still rare: About nine oil patch deaths have been blamed on toxic gases in the past six years.
But how has the industry responded to these oil field fatalities?
This year, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which is in charge of oil development on federal land, will be updating rules that could address how oil tanks are measured. Part of what has been frustrating for many about the fatalities is how simple it would be to avoid them. Instead of having workers lower rope into a tank to measure the level of oil, the tanks could be updated with automated monitoring equipment.
Yet, a BLM representative recently explained to NPR that this kind of upgrade isn’t likely to happen across the board. Currently, there are about 83,000 oil wells on federal land and automated measuring equipment would cost about $2,000 per tank. The cost of upgrading tanks would likely shut many oil companies down.
According to the BLM representative, any proposed new rules definitely wouldn’t ban taking measurements by hand.
Meanwhile, families of at least six of the nine toxic vapor fatalities are suing the employers involved.
And while this danger still exists for oil workers, other reports have noted that the industry has made significant strides overall to reduce workplace dangers. A spokesperson from the American Petroleum Institute noted in an interview last year that injury and illness rates dropped in the oil industry by 40 percent between 2003 and 2013.
"Still, our goal is zero incidents, and we remain committed to continuous improvement," he said.