The Insidious Nature of Airborne Compounds Complicates Workplace Injury Investigations

How hard can it be to establish the cause of death in Bakken oil field fatal workplace injuries? According to North Dakota forensic examiner, William Massello, it's possible for one person to die from inhalation while another may not show any ill effects from toxic volatile compounds exposure. He says that relating a worker's death to his work is not an exact science as people believe.

When examiners are unable to explain the role of hydrogen sulfide or volatile vapors in Bakken workplace fatalities, they check off no as cause of death. Although scientists have established toxic levels for volatile compounds, current studies are evaluating existing limits.

In four cases of Bakken fatal workplace injury, authorities first blamed hydrogen sulfide poisoning because it is a known killer in the Bakken oil fields. Less recognized is the fact that petroleum vapors also produce sudden death. And when authorities discovered that the suspected wells did not emit hydrogen sulfide, they dropped work-related as the cause of death even though all four men had the same job of measuring levels in petroleum tanks.

In 2013 after ruling out hydrogen sulfide inhalation as reason for death, examiner William Massello concluded that cardiac arrhythmia from natural causes was responsible. The insurance company denied the claim for workman comp benefits.

According to an occupational medicine specialist investigating fatal chemical exposures in the workplace, Robert Harrison said it is possible that coroners and medical examiners are overlooking symptoms of petroleum poisoning in Bakken oil field fatalities.

Why would a 75-year-old Bakken worker without a history of heart problems and who recently passed a physical die of an enlarged heart from hardening of the arteries as listed on the death certificate? Why were there detectable levels of butane and propane, components of Bakken crude, found in his blood test results?

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found high, non-lethal levels of benzene and VOC's in a 2014 study of Wyoming Bakken oil field flowback operators. The NIOSH is also studying whether acutely toxic gases whooshing out of tanks caused oil field fatalities.

Companies should provide respirators to truck drivers and flowback employees working near tanks and they should not work alone around Bakken crude fumes. To increase safety, workers should measure tank levels without opening hatches. Unfortunately, North Dakota and other states still require manual measurements taken in person.

Bakken crude contains dangerous volatile compounds. Exposure is common. Please contact us if you have experienced workplace injury from toxic exposure.