“Senseless Exposures”: How Money and Federal Rules Endanger Oilfield Workers


Emily Guerin

Truck driver Ryan Ehlis checks his tires before heading out for a night of hauling crude oil around the Bakken oilfield. Ehlis says being exposed to petroleum gas is an unavoidable part of his job.

Truck driver Ryan Ehlis checks his tires before heading out for a night of hauling crude oil around the Bakken oilfield. Ehlis says being exposed to petroleum gas is an unavoidable part of his job.

Emily Guerin

Truck driver Ryan Ehlis checks his tires before heading out for a night of hauling crude oil around the Bakken oilfield. Ehlis says being exposed to petroleum gas is an unavoidable part of his job.

Dustin Bergsing was a young, fit, bull rider from Montana. On a cold night in January 2012, he climbed to the catwalk on top of a 20 foot tall crude oil storage tank on an oil well pad in North Dakota’s Bakken oilfield. His job was to pop open the small hatch on top and drop a rope inside to measure the level of oil.

Just after midnight, he was found dead by a co-worker, slumped on the catwalk.

At first, people suspected Dustin had died from inhaling a gas called hydrogen sulfide, a known oilfield killer that can be deadly after just a few minutes. But an autopsy revealed Dustin didn’t have any of that in his system.

Instead, his blood contained hydrocarbons like benzene, ethane and butane – the same compounds that are in natural gas. At that point, few people had heard of oil workers dying, out in the open, from inhaling petroleum gases. But because Dustin’s case caught the eye of an investigative reporter who teamed up with a doctor, four years later oilfield hydrocarbon vapor poisoning is a known occupational hazard.

Despite this, thousands of workers are still being exposed every day as a routine part of doing their jobs because of outdated federal regulations that make it very difficult to use new technology that would get workers off of tanks.

OSHA Investigation

When the Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigated Dustin’s death, the agency closed the case because Dustin didn’t have any of the known killer – hydrogen sulfide – in his body. “A citation could not be supported for work-related exposure,” they wrote, and declined to fine Dustin’s employer.

Later that year, Mike Soraghan, a reporter who covers oil and gas for EnergyWire, a online business publication, came across Dustin’s case while working on a story about oilfield fatalities. He was dumbfounded:

“I just remember reading through (the OSHA report) and thinking, ‘that’s it?’ A 21-year old kid just sort of dies out in the middle of nowhere and sort of nothing happens?’”

There are a lot of ways to die as an oil worker – in 2012, the year Dustin died, it was seven times more dangerous than the average U.S. industry. But even in the oilfield, it is unusual for a healthy 21-year-old to drop dead on an oil well pad.

Soraghan is one of those people who doesn’t like not knowing things. So when he didn’t understand what had killed Dustin, and why no one was held accountable, he couldn’t let it go. He teamed up with a doctor, and together, the two of them went on to help solve the deaths of eight other oilfield workers. That doctor was Bob Harrison, a clinical professor at University of California San Francisco who specializes in occupational and environmental medicine.

Soraghan met Harrison at an oil and gas safety conference in 2013 where he a speaker. He pulled him aside and told him about Dustin’s case. Harrison was intrigued.

First, there was the fact that OSHA had declined to issue a citation to the company, even though petroleum gases had been found in Dustin blood, which suggested, to Harrison, that Dustin’s death was work-related.

Second, he had never heard of an oil worker dying that way before.

And third, he didn’t believe the rumors that Dustin had been up on the tank trying to deliberately get high off the petroleum gases. “Frankly, there are a lot easier ways to get high than going out in your long johns at 1:30 in the morning, in North Dakota, to gauge an oil tank,” Harrison said. “It just didn’t add up to me.”

Harrison was convinced that, similar to hydrogen sulfide, you could die after just a few minutes of breathing high concentrations of petroleum gases. He suspected Dustin had passed out when he opened the hatch on the oil tank and was engulfed by a cloud of petroleum gas. The gas killed him by displacing the oxygen in the air, and it caused him to stop breathing.

Infrared video produced by NIOSH shows petroleum gases being released from a crude oil storage tank.

More Cases

Meanwhile, Soraghan had been digging through OSHA databases and media reports, trying to find other cases. He came across a 30-year old man who died in 2010 in Montana in nearly identical circumstances to Dustin Bergsing – alone, collapsed on the catwalk on top of a crude oil storage tank on an oil pad. At that point Harrison contacted the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, a branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and told them he suspected there might be a pattern. Their epidemiologists began to search OSHA databases of deceased workers for cases they may have missed, and they began to closely monitor any new fatalities.

“It’s not very common that you identify a new occupational health issue that’s potentially fatal,” said Kyla Retzer, an epidemiologist with NIOSH. She told me she was very concerned about the two cases Harrison and Soraghan had uncovered. “It’s something we wanted to act on quickly.” Retzer said it felt like working on an outbreak of an infectious disease, because workers kept dying.

When NIOSH had identified four deaths related to petroleum gases in May of 2014, it issued an alert asking the public for help. By the end of 2014, NIOSH had identified a total of nine workers who had died working around crude oil tanks, including three in Colorado and three in North Dakota.

In 2015, the agency updated its original alert, partnered with the oil industry to try to warn workers directly, completed a peer-reviewed study and, in February 2016, along with OSHA, issued an even more forceful warning about the risks.

As for Dustin Bergsing, his company was never fined – although his family did settle a wrongful death lawsuit for a “substantial” sum. But despite the increased awareness, workers continue to be exposed to these gases. That’s frustrating to Bob Harrison, who says he never wants “to hear about another worker dead on top of an oil and gas tank.”

Federal Regulations Increase Exposure Risks

One reason why workers continue to be exposed is that, under federal oil and gas regulations, oil companies are effectively required to send them up on oil and gas tanks to manually measure crude oil, putting them at risk.

Ryan Ehlis is one of those workers for whom petroleum gas exposure is a regular part of his job. He is a truck driver who hauls crude oil around the Bakken oilfield in North Dakota. Before he can fill his truck, he has to climb the oil storage tanks and open the hatch on top. He does it to measure the height of the oil in the tank before and after he fills his truck – that’s how he knows how much oil he’s pumped.

Recently, Ehlis drove me out to an oil well pad outside Watford City where the petroleum gases had been particularly overwhelming. He pointed at a row of beige, 20-foot tall storage tanks. “When I came down I was kind of dizzy and lightheaded from the gas,” he said.

Youtube video by an oil field truck driver showing (at 5:25 in) gas exposure upon opening a hatch on a well pad. 

He tries to avoid it by standing upwind of the gas, or opening the hatch and letting the tank vent before he takes his measurements (he calls them gauges) – workarounds he has learned through years on the job. But sometimes it doesn’t work. “If there’s gas in your face, you kind of hold your breath,” and then step in towards the gassy tank hatch to take measurements, before stepping back into fresh air and repeating the process. “But you can’t avoid it entirely.”

Senseless Exposures

Dennis Schmitz calls these “senseless exposures.” The oil and gas safety trainer knows from personal experience that workers do not have to be put in danger just to measure the height of crude oil in a tank or take a few oil samples. In Canada and in the offshore oil and gas industry, it is common to use automatic tank gauging technology or other types of remote measurement that don’t expose workers to deadly gases.

Schmitz knows because he used to work as a marine cargo inspector measuring crude oil tanks both on and offshore. “I have felt that buckling of the knees, and the lightheadedness, literally puking off the side of the tank,” he said. “And here’s the odd thing. That’s when we were onshore. When I was offshore, I wasn’t exposed. … I never even questioned, why is it that I don’t breathe the vapors (offshore) and I do breathe them (onshore)?”

Youtube video showing petroleum gases being vented from a oil storage tank.

Federal regulations play a large role. Two different government agencies regulate oil measurement on federal land onshore and offshore (state regulators are in charge of what happens on private and state lands) — the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (formerly known as Minerals Management Service or MMS). This new agency was created in 2010 in the reorganization that followed the BP oil spill and Deepwater Horizon disaster).

BLM Rules Outdated

Of the two agencies, the BLM is widely acknowledged as having the more outdated rules. According to a 2010 Government Accountability Office report (one of many recent reports that condemned BLM’s antiquated oil measurement rules), the former MMS updated its regulations every year and as a result, they reflected current technology. “In contrast,” the report notes, “BLM last revised its oil and gas measurement regulations in 1989. As a result, BLM’s regulations do not reflect current industry … technologies and standards.”

For Gary Wilson, general manager of TankLogix, a company that makes automatic oil measurement equipment, “it’s maddening.”

“We have a solution that could be ubiquitously deployed, and getting a change has proven to be extremely difficult,” he said. TankLogix’s systems eliminate the need for workers to climb on top of oil tanks, but the BLM hasn’t OK’d it.

Only one kind of automated measurement is currently allowed by BLM – the Lease Automatic Custody Transfer (LACT), and it’s expensive and only used on high-producing oil wells. As a result, they aren’t that common: there are only 1,500 in use, compared to more than 83,000 oil tanks on federal land.

By being so inflexible, BLM’s outdated rules make it very hard to use safer oil measuring devices while making manual oil tank measurement — which endangers workers — the most viable option for companies.

The BLM’s Steve Wells, who oversees oil production on federal and Indian lands, says the agency is just trying to make sure oil is accurately measured. “If it’s a public asset, then the taxpayer deserves to have their money, their assets, protected,” he said. Because money is at stake, the BLM is extremely cautious about any new technology that might not be as accurate as the tried and true practice of sending workers up on tanks.

Rules Update

Still, the agency has been trying for years to move towards allowing more automated technology. Currently BLM is updating its 27-year old rule, called Onshore Order 4, for the first time since 1989. But in the new proposed rule, they will only allow one additional kind of automatic tank measurement – and it’s a system that is still cost prohibitive to smaller companies.

Given the increased awareness of how dangerous manual crude oil measurement can be for workers, I asked Wells how likely BLM was to consider worker safety when revising its rules. He sighed, and said, “I think it’s too early to tell right now. But that is one of the considerations.”

The agency won’t make a final decision until the summer. Meanwhile, many oil companies are nervous about any new regulations that might force them to spend money. Here’s what a few oil companies told the BLM in their comments on the proposed Onshore Order 4:

This is truck driver Ryan Ehlis’s sixth year hauling crude oil in the oilfield. At the height of the boom, he made $175,000 a year. “I‘ve lived other places but even if I’ve tried to do other things, the oil patch is kind of where the money is,” he said. So he keeps doing it, putting himself at risk.

Second Thoughts

There was only one time he had second thoughts. He was on a well pad, waiting to load oil onto his truck when another driver’s truck sucked up petroleum gases through its air intake and exploded. “I looked out my window and there’s nothing but a huge orange fireball probably 50 feet in the air, everyone was running,” he said, laughing a little. “That was the one night I questioned whether or not I should even be out here working. Like, is this worth it?”

The doubts lasted about 24 hours. And then Ryan got back to work. In this industry, it’s easy to put money before worker safety – for the BLM, the oil companies, and yes, for the workers themselves.

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