Big oil’s deadly gamble 

In the heart of the oil industry, a deadly gamble is taking place. Workers are facing life-threatening risks as they unknowingly inhale toxic gases during a practice known as manual gauging. Despite warnings from the US government, the oil industry seems to have turned a blind eye to the dangers, leading to multiple worker fatalities. This joint report by Drilled and The Guardian sheds light on this alarming issue and calls for urgent action to protect the lives of these workers.


Jeff Springman’s Close Call


Jeff Springman’s routine workday on an oil storage tank in West Texas turned into a nightmare. As he climbed the metal stairs and opened the tank’s small hatch, he expected to test the fluid inside. However, he was engulfed by invisible chemicals that had accumulated within the tank. Overwhelmed, Springman passed out, but his coworker, Greg Fausto, acted swiftly and saved him from a potentially fatal fall. When Springman regained consciousness, he realized the concentration of gas in the air had reached a flammable level. He suffered from a nosebleed, nausea, and an unsettling film in his mouth. Unfortunately, his health has only deteriorated since that day.


Warning Signs Ignored


After witnessing multiple worker fatalities linked to manual gauging, the US government issued a warning about its dangers. Between 2010 and 2014, nine workers lost their lives from inhaling gases while gauging tanks. Shockingly, the oil industry did not seem to heed this vital warning. Since 2016, at least a dozen more workers have tragically died as a result of manual gauging, and experts fear the actual number might be even higher.


Advocate’s Alarming Observations


Sharon Wilson, a dedicated environmental advocate researching methane emissions, frequently witnesses workers manually gauging tanks in Texas. Equipped with an optical gas imaging camera, she can see the harmful gases that remain invisible to these workers. Wilson describes the sight as resembling a “volcano erupting” with hydrocarbon gases spewing forth, raising concerns about the imminent dangers they face.


A Dangerous Industry


The oil and gas industry poses significant risks to its workers, with a fatality rate seven times higher than the national average, as per a 2013 study. The fatal risk of hydrocarbon vapors, including methane, propane, and butane, has gained attention following the death of 21-year-old Dustin Bergsing in 2012. Though initially attributed to cardiovascular disease, toxicology testing found propane and butane in his blood.


Medical Expert’s Alarming Findings


Dr. Robert Harrison, an occupational medicine physician from the University of California, San Francisco, alerted federal agencies about the dangers of these vapors. He explained that when workers inhale these gases, they quickly enter the bloodstream, starving the body of oxygen and leading to cardiac arrest in most cases. The gases can also directly impact the heart, causing fibrillation.


Underreported Deaths


A 2016 CDC study tried to count worker deaths from exposure to gases and vapors released from thief hatches on tanks. However, it’s likely that the death toll related to hydrocarbon poisoning has been undercounted, as some cases lacked toxic exposure testing.


Insufficient Industry Response


In response to a 2016 OSHA safety alert, the American Petroleum Institute (API) updated its best practices to minimize risks during tank gauging. The recommendations include using electronic gauges that avoid the need to open thief hatches. However, manual gauging remains common on private land, and no laws mandating remote gauging have been passed.


Continuing Tragedies


Despite efforts to raise awareness about the dangers of manual gauging, more workers continue to lose their lives on the job. Between 2016 and 2020, twelve workers died while transferring oil and gas fluids at well sites, with cardiac events and explosions among the causes.


Urgent Call for Change


The oil industry must prioritize worker safety without delay. Activists, experts, and concerned individuals call for mandatory alternatives to manual gauging that could save countless lives. It is time to take swift action to protect the well-being of those who play a crucial role in the industry.




The tragic consequences of the oil industry’s deadly gamble cannot be ignored. Workers are paying the price with their lives while the industry hesitates to adopt safer practices. It’s time for the oil industry to heed the government’s warnings, implement necessary changes, and protect the health and safety of its workforce. A collective effort is required to ensure that no more lives are lost to these preventable tragedies.


Sources of the article: The Guardian, Drilled