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Bakken worker death caused by toxic gas, lawsuit claims

The family of a man found dead atop an oil collection tank in the North Dakota oil patch in 2013 is suing the Texas-based company the deceased was working for.

As reported by the Billings Gazette, on July 18, 2013, the body of Blaine P. Otto of Sidney, Montana, was discovered on a catwalk above the tanks where he was checking oil levels. Bradley T. Otto, Blaine’s brother, is representing the estate of the deceased and is suing Newfield Exploration Co.

The company has denied any responsibility for Otto’s death. The official death certificate states that the 39-year-old died from natural causes due to heart problems and obesity. Otto’s family, however, believes he was killed by toxic gasses that were released upon opening of the hatch at the site located in McKenzie County.

An investigator that has determined the cause of death in other, similar oilfield worker deaths, told the Tribune that heart attacks are often wrongly attributed to the cause of death when workers are exposed to the released toxic gases. By the time the victims are found, the concentration of harmful gases have usually dissipated. The investigator said that when coroners are evaluating a scene such as this, they will check for natural causes of death because there is no obvious evidence of an accident.

The lawsuit points to nine other deaths which have occurred in the Bakken oilfields under similar circumstances. The complaint contends that Newfield had a responsibility to minimize the dangers of its well site, especially when hazardous gas vapors are a known health risk to workers in the Bakken. The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Billings, Montana, in July and is seeking undefined damages.

19 comments

  1. Did the company provide PPE-?
    Toxic gas– natural gas is not toxic– and there was no history of H2S in the well other wells in the area— And if there was H2S present it being heavier than air would have flowed off the tank top like water to the ground–

    • Because of all the people found dead on tanks I’ve heard osha in general is looking hard at all the voc’s that come out of the hatch cover when you pop it. I’ve also heard benzene is of particular interest.

    • Plaintiff will need to conduct their own autopsy. Good luck finding a toxic gas when none was found by the medical examiner.

    • Sadly I have had to help move a victim of H2S —

    • Benzene was found when a friend went down on a site. If they didn’t test for Benzene right when he passed out that makes no sense unless he was only person on location.

    • H2s isn’t the only toxic gas that will kill you. Some people are more susceptible to things based on O2 levels in the blood, lung health/capacity, etc also

    • Heather Mullens — the only toxic gases in consideration are those that occur in hydrocarbons —
      There is a difference between being toxic poisoning and asphyxiation

    • No H2S there? Lots of H2S in the Bakken field on the Canadian side of the border. I’m thinking its probably the same on the US side. I would never even consider going on top of one of those tanks without air and monitors.

    • Richard Guenther — if H2S had been present it would have been documented when the well was drld, the production location would have be marked, detectors installed and related safety gear provided on site- Tank gauger would had a personal detector.. All of this is OSHA minimum
      All these things would have been observed when EMS removed the body and documented for coroner– and marked H2S or not EMS would have used hand held H2S detectors for their own safety—

  2. This continues and there will be lact units everywhere…..its already like that around here

  3. Benzene.. Some oil companies make you mask up if the well produces over a certain amount of bbls per day due to high benzene levels coming out of tanks.. On a calm day with no mask some low producing wells will even make you feel queasy when you open that hatch…

    • U get caught on top of one of our tanks NOT masked up they’ll fire ya on the spot !! It’s a Requirement as soon as I set foot on the first step of the Cat Walk ya gotta have a SCBA & a Harness if your climbing over 5ft

    • That’s dumb as hell. If there’s H2S you should mask up. If there’s just gas then don’t breathe it in -.-

    • This is ND…….they don’t stay on top of these companies like they should! Lots of shady dangerous stuff goes on. Lots of young PMs and supervisors and don’t give a poo. Seem to be the ones get promotion too! No field experience no nothing but making as much profit as possible at any experience!

  4. Come 2 West Texas !! Theirs not a single well around here that doesn’t have H2s !! The oilfield is no game u gotta be on your Toes @ all times respect it & use your PPE it’ll save your life

  5. I work and stay there in Mckenzie county. There aren’t as many H2S wells in Mckenzie as there are in Williams county but it is always a risk everytime we open the hatches. Benzene gas is bad and will kill but if they found him on the catwalk it would more than likely have been H2S gas. H2S can kill very quickly.

  6. Opening the latch Benzene knocked my friend out. Safety came out immediately found it in the air and shut the whole site down. Not sure what’s going on in this case?? Then again some supervisors don’t even provide H2S monitors to everyone. Glad my OFM takes safety for him and his crew seriously!

  7. Pure, uncontaminated methane will kill you if you take a big hit of it. It doesn’t have to contain H2S or benzene. For that matter a simple lack of breathable air for any reason will kill you.

    What bothers me is that workers still have to climb cat walks and open hatches to gauge tanks. Really? Is that the best or only method? Many/most of these are recently constructed facilities using modern methods and equipment, including monitoring technology. So why should anyone need to open a the top of tank, alone, remotely, in the dark, to verify what is in it?

    Control the hazard/impact by eliminating it.
    If that’s not possible remove the person from harm’s way.
    If that’s not possible the personnel must be fully protected with both engineered and procedural controls (breathing air, air quality monitoring, backup personnel, response & rescue procedures).

  8. All Pumpers or anyone even remotely in daily contact with gas should mask up. We all get some what compliant and lazy when our job gets to be a routine! Sad that this happened but I am sure that he had safeland and h2s training under his belt and should of known better. !! Its a dangerous place to work and anything can happen on any given day ! We all know the dangers of our jobs, its all good when we are making the big bucks and putting our lives on the line. You cant stop mother nature( H2s) when she comes to call !!

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