Energy industry safety experts and government agencies have begun investigating the potential dangers posed by inhaling hydrocarbons following the deaths of at least nine workers since 2010.
A recent study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), part of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), found that nine oil and gas workers died between January 2010 to December 2014 while gauging production tanks or collecting samples.
The agency said that while the details of each case varies the deaths may have been caused by the inhalation of gases and vapors that escape from production tanks when internal pressure builds and a hatch is opened.
Of the nine fatalities, six occurred in 2014 and one each in 2013, 2012, and 2010.
Four of the victims died while gauging tanks while the five other victims died during sampling by pumpers and truckers.
The CDC said that in at least one case the victim had sought out medical attention for adverse health effects he noticed after gauging a tank.
The agency added that all the victims were discovered either on top of or near tanks and were working the tanks alone.
The chemicals released by the tanks could include benzene, a known carcinogen, as well as butane, propane and ethane.
NIOSH researchers found that concentrations of those chemicals were “in excess of immediately dangerous to life or health levels” near open tank hatches.
Inhaling hydrocarbons can cause disorientation, light-headedness and even asphyxiation and heart failure if a worker is exposed to large amounts of the chemicals.
The CDC has recommended that a maximum exposure limit be set at 10 percent of the lower explosive limit for light hydrocarbon gases due to narcotic and explosive hazards.
The agency is conducting further studies to asses the risks to workers and develop ways to minimize exposure.
The NIOSH issued a preliminary lists of recommendations for oil and gas firms to mitigate the risk of inhalation that includes ramping up training efforts and making sure employees do not work near tanks alone.
The agency also recommended implementing alternative gauging procedures such as sonar or in-line fluid flow systems to reduce exposure.
Industry safety groups and federal agencies are planning to issue alerts highlighting the risks of hydrocarbon inhalation possibly as soon as this week, the Wall Street Journal said.
For now, industry experts and government regulators are focused on educating workers about inhalation hazards while investigating long term solutions.
“We’re trying to take a proactive approach with what we’re doing and trying to get the notice out to workers in the field,” executive director of the Association of Energy Service Companies Kenny Jordan told the Journal.