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Oilfield hazards cannot always be seen with the naked eye

The booming oil fields of North Dakota are a dangerous place to work. Workers can be crushed by heavy machinery. As an endless convoy comes into and out of worksites, workers can suffer injury in truck accidents. But one deadly threat that is not always on the radar screens of workers in the oilfields was recently the subject of a wrongful death lawsuit.

The incident that gave rise to the wrongful death case concerned an oil workers whose job it was to examine storage tanks filled with crude oil, frac water and gasses. If one of the tanks was approaching capacity, he directed the flow to another tank.

While this job may not sound all that inherently dangerous, the man worked alone, and neither he nor the Marathon Oil contractor he worked for were prepared to take into account the possibility of lethal gas.

Hydrogen sulfide gas is potentially lethal, has no odor, no color and is naturally produced by some oil wells. Even though this worker had a hydrogen sulfide monitor attached to his helmet when he conducted his inspections, something went wrong one night, and his lifeless body was found by a coworker. But as it turned out, the worker’s hydrogen sulfide monitor was working the night of his death.

What happened? Hydrocarbon vapors come from natural gas, which is produced at many crude oil drilling locations. If hydrocarbon vapors are not flared or captured properly, they can displace the oxygen in a given area and cause a person to suffocate.

Operating on this theory, attorney Fred Bremseth, acting on behalf of the victim’s mother, filed a wrongful death lawsuit. Marathon Oil eventually settled with the family out of court.

Source: Black Gold Boom, "Oil Patch Code Blue: Juhnke v. Marathon Oil," Sept. 12, 2013

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