U.S. Oil Tank Gaugers Dying from Preventable Hydrocarbon Gas Exposure

Two workers at a chemical plant

Oil and gas companies are well aware of the hazards facing oil field storage tank workers doing fluid transfers, sampling, and manual tank gauging. A dangerous mix of chemicals and pressure in oil tanks amplifies the risk of toxic gas inhalation, oxygen deprivation, and death for workers in the vicinity.

Oil and gas industry experts know the numerous safety solutions available to reduce or remove potentially dangerous vapors, including remote gauging, automatic sampling, blowdown valves, sampling taps, hatch pressure indicators, and respiratory protection – all used regularly in oilfields across the globe.

With all these existing safety measures, why are oil field workers still dying on the job?

The tragic truth is, most oil worker deaths involving toxic gas exposure during transfers and tank gauging are caused by the actions of oil and gas companies who are willing to risk workers’ lives to save a dollar.

Marathon Oil Flow Tester Dies Gauging North Dakota Crude Oil Tank

Twenty-one-year-old Dustin Bergsing had everything to look forward to. He was marrying his fiancé in just over five months, had a brand new six-week-old daughter, and worked a nice paying, relatively safe oil field job with North Dakota’s Across Big Sky Flow Testing.

Bergsing was living on-site at the Bakken Marathon Oil well near Mandaree, North Dakota. Every two hours, he climbed a staircase to the top of the crude oil storage tanks, opened the thief hatch, and dipped a measuring device inside to measure the fluid level. When a tank was full, he would switch the flow to the next tank. Just like most flow testers, he worked alone.

In October 2011, a Marathon Oil employee had noticed that the company switched from using two flare stacks for each tank to just one - and flowback piping was below size. Natural gas was flowing into the crude oil tanks.

The employee also noticed that the oil storage tanks were leaking hydrocarbon vapors. He started filming the vapor plumes with an infrared camera. After measuring the gas at highly toxic levels, he reported his concerns to coworkers.

With no action taken, he decided to email his supervisors about the lower number of flare stacks and noncompliant flowback piping. His superiors told him to use the phone instead of email. Marathon flew an attorney in to train him how to write “safe” emails.

On January 7, 2012, at around 10 pm, Dustin Bergsing headed out to gauge the tanks. A little after midnight, a coworker woke to an alarm sounding. One of the tanks was approaching capacity. The coworker went to check the tank and found Bergsing lying unconscious on the catwalk next to an open hatch. Coworkers did CPR until the ambulance arrived. Bergsing was pronounced dead at the hospital at around 2 am.

Witness Claims Marathon Oil Ignored Hydrocarbon Gas Warnings

OSHA investigated, concluding that Bergsing’s likely cause of death was hydrocarbon vapor poisoning. Toxicology found the presence of propane, butane, ethane, and heavier MW hydrocarbons in Bergsing’s blood. The medical examiner attributed the death of the healthy 21-year-old to cardiovascular disease.

In May 2012, the same employee who was concerned about the gas leaks prior to Bergsing’s death went out to measure a well where another worker said he had felt sick. He found dangerously low oxygen levels and reported them. One month later, Marathon fired the concerned employee for poor performance.

Seven months after her son’s death, Bergsing’s mother filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Marathon Oil. In February 2013, Marathon agreed to a confidential settlement in Bergsing’s wrongful death suit. Bergsing’s estate received payment “in the seven-figure range.”

Both parties issued a statement reading that Marathon "knew or should have known that the oil well and tank facility where Dustin Bergsing worked was unreasonably dangerous due to the presence of a large amount of toxic hydrocarbon gases under pressure in the oil," and that Marathon "was actually warned by an employee that the accumulation of gases at these wells was ultrahazardous, and could result in a death."

Nine Oilfield Hydrocarbon Gas Deaths in Five Years

In those five years between January 2010 and March 2015, eight other oil field workers died from inhaling toxic hydrocarbon gases while conducting manual tank gauging, fluid transfers, and sampling. Six of the nine deaths happened in 2014. Most of these deaths were entirely preventable.

In one case, a 39-year-old North Dakota truck driver was transferring crude from a tank battery when he lost consciousness. A pumper found him collapsed on the battery railing, already deceased. Toxicology did not find hydrocarbons in the bloodstream. OSHA ruled the death work-related. The coroner’s report listed atherosclerosis as a cause of death.

In another case, a 63-year-old Texas tank gauger was assigned to gauge three oil tanks every hour. After one shift, a delivery driver found him collapsed at the bottom of the catwalk stairs next to the tank battery. His cause of death was ruled arteriosclerotic and hypertensive cardiovascular disease.

One tragic death involved a 20-year-old North Dakota flow tester who was discovered unconscious face down over an open upper hatch of a crude storage tank. OSHA ruled the death work related. The medical examiner listed the cause of death as obesity, coronary artery hypogenesis, cardiac arrhythmia with cardiac hypertrophy, and petroleum hydrocarbons vapor exposure.

All nine deaths occurred while the oilfield workers were (1) working alone on a crude oil production tank in an open space, (2) working near an open hatch or other known concentrated source of hydrocarbon gases and vapors, and (3) not exposed to hydrogen sulfide (H2S).

Four deaths occurred while collecting fluid samples, the other five occurring during tank gauging. All victims were found unconscious on a storage tank, catwalk, or staircase. In five cases, the worker was found near an open hatch. In one case, the victim had reported dizziness and other ill health effects during previous gauging jobs.

Oilfield Worker Deaths Attributed to Natural Causes

If you remember, Dustin Bergsing’s death was initially attributed to cardiovascular disease. The medical examiner later changed the cause of death to hydrocarbon vapor poisoning.

Just one of the nine victims had a cause of death listed as hydrocarbon vapor poisoning alone. The rest of the deaths are attributed to things like obesity, cardiac arrhythmia, hypertensive cardiovascular disease, arteriosclerosis, coronary artery hypogenesis, and cardiac hypertrophy. Just three of the nine cases noted petroleum hydrocarbon vapors as a contributor to death.

Not all nine cases had toxicology data collected. However, given the circumstances in which the victims were found unconscious, and the relative youth of the victims (ages 20-63, with four of the nine workers under the age of 39), it is curious that hydrocarbon vapor poisoning is not considered a main cause of death.

Oil Companies Boost Profits by Cutting Worker Safety

A major focus of my new book, Crude, Slick, and Deadly - Exposing the Dark Side of Big Oil (Sutton Hart Press), oil and gas companies are more than willing to cut corners for profit, often resulting in life-altering injuries and tragic deaths of our loved ones.

There is no question that Marathon Oil knew that hazardous gases were escaping the tanks prior to Bergsing’s death. But worker safety measures cost money. Flare stacks cost money.

It may help to explain how these accidents happen. As oil tanks fill with crude, the tank builds pressure. When a worker opens the thief hatch, toxic vapors (mostly butane and propane) plume into the air, surrounding the worker and displacing any breathable oxygen. Even one or two breaths of these hydrocarbon gases can render a person unconscious – meaning they can’t move back into a breathable air space. Many of these workers work alone. If they pass out, they are unlikely to survive.

Flare stacks are installed to rid crude oil tanks of excess gases. In Bergsing’s case, the witness testified that Marathon Oil typically installed two flare stacks per tank, but had downsized to just one per tank. The witness felt that this cost-saving move by Marathon contributed to the vapor plumes he was seeing escaping the tanks on his infrared camera – indicating excessive toxic gas buildup.

Marathon Oil knows that visible gas fumes leaking from a tank could be dangerous for manual tank gauging. They chose not to take action to prevent injury. After all, taking such action might cost money. And these sorts of deaths have been easy to get away with. There are no witnesses out there when a gauger opens the tank hatch, and medical examiners like to attribute these deaths to natural causes.

Almost all tragic oilfield worker accidents are preventable. And nearly all oil and gas industry accidents are directly caused by companies putting profits over their workers’ safety. And since money talks for these guys, there is only one way to convince oil and gas companies to make viable changes to safety practices – by filing lawsuits, winning lawsuits, and securing massive settlement amounts.

Oilfield workers have a right to work under safe conditions, receive proper training regarding workplace hazards, review inspection results and data on work-related injuries, and report safety concerns without employer retaliation or discrimination. Unfortunately, most major oil and gas companies deny their workers each one of these rights.

If you or a loved one has been injured or lost their lives in the oilfield, you can help hold the industry accountable for their actions. A personal injury attorney with extensive experience in the oil and gas industry can help you file a lawsuit for the maximum possible award or settlement amount – far above any amount that workers compensation laws provide. Contact our lawyers at (361) 866-5535 or online.

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