Safety and OSHA News

Did worker die from toxic fume exposure or heart failure?

A decision by a judge in Colorado highlights a hazard faced by workers in the oil and gas industries, and that more efforts are needed to protect these workers from potential death.

The administrative law judge in Colorado has ruled that oil-field worker Jim Freemyer died from dangerously high levels of chemicals and low levels of oxygen he was exposed to atop a storage tank, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Freemyer, an employee of Now or Never Trucking, was found unconscious last July with his head hanging over the hatch of an oil tank in Weld County, CO. His job involved opening these hatches to take samples and measure levels inside.

Now or Never’s insurance company, Pinnacol Assurance, cited Freemyer’s history of heart disease in its decision to deny his widow death benefits. A Pinnacol spokeswoman told The WSJ that it respects the judge’s findings and doesn’t plan to appeal. Now or Never had no comment.

The WSJ calls the decision in Freemyer’s case “a victory for industry safety professionals and government scientists seeking to show that dense plumes of hydrocarbon chemicals have caused several sudden deaths in recent years.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified nine such cases.

OSHA has issued warnings to oil and gas companies about this hazard.

Government testing using infrared technology has shown volatile chemicals stored in the tanks can escape in large, invisible plumes.

A key in Freemyer’s case: Readings from a monitor he wore showed high readings for the hazardous chemicals.

The judge also noted a Now or Never supervisor had purchased a gas mask for Freemyer, but it was the wrong type.

Freemyer’s case isn’t the first of its type to be decided in favor of death benefits for surviving relatives. Late last year, the North Dakota Supreme Court allowed death benefits for an oil-field worker who died in 2012 in similar circumstances to Freemyer.

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