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Hazards of manual fluid sampling in oil fields

Fluid sampling and gauging are routine tasks in oil production fields across the nation. Unfortunately for oil workers, these tasks can be very hazardous. Between 2010 and 2014, nine deaths in oil fields occurred due to exposure to hydrocarbon gas and lack of oxygen during the fluid sampling or gauging process, including one death in Colorado. When the concentration of hydrocarbon gas is sufficiently high, a spark or open flame can set off an explosion.

New video shines spotlight on the dangers of fluid sampling

Recently, a new video was released that highlights the dangers of manual fluid sampling and gauging. Produced by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the California Department of Health, the video also explains some of the steps oil workers can take to minimize the possibility of toxic exposure or explosion.

In the manual fluid sampling procedure, a production worker lowers a measuring device from an opening at the top of an oil storage tank called a thief hatch. A worker may perform this task dozens of times a day. Tanker truck drivers who haul oil from a production site to a refinery or transit terminal also open thief hatches to measure the quality of oil before leaving for their destinations. Oil field workers and drivers often perform these tasks, alone, in bad weather, at night, and in isolated locations.

When toxic fumes escape from a thief hatch

An immense amount of hydrocarbon can escape from a storage tank when an oil field worker opens a thief hatch. Workers who inhale hydrocarbon gases can suffer:

  • Intense irritation of the eyes
  • Heart arrhythmia
  • Disorientation and confusion
  • Unconsciousness
  • Death from lack of oxygen or cardiac arrest

How to minimize the hazards

Some oil companies have installed automated fluid sampling devices on their oil storage tanks. And sampling taps can be located at the ground level to limit the amount of hydrocarbon gases that escape from storage tanks.

If these measures are not in place, an oil worker charged with fluid sampling tasks should:

  • Inform their supervisors or another designated employee when starting and finishing the fluid sampling process
  • Remove anything that could spark an explosion
  • Where a protective face mask and a gas monitoring device
  • Ground themselves climbing the ladder and getting on the catwalk. Do this with a bare hand.
  • Open the main bleed-off valve and keep it open while performing the fluid sampling process
  • Determine the direction of the wind and stay upwind
  • Immediately on opening the thief hatch, step back to allow gas to escape from the tank

An oil worker who has suffered injuries while working or a dependent of a worker who has died while working may be eligible for workers' compensation benefits. Speak with an attorney if you have questions about your situation.

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