Thursday, December 11, 2014

A death in the Bakken Shale region; company not required to pay benefits to employee's daughter

The oil and gas industry can be a profitable—and dangerous—one in which to work. While the Bakken Shale boom in North Dakota has led to an increase in jobs and a flourishing economy, oil and gas extraction worker fatality rates are seven times greater than the rate for all industries. Between 2003-2010, 823 workers were killed, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Left behind are grieving families—some of whom are fighting to collect death benefits from companies who them.

Brandon Belk and daughter Mariah Sykes
One such case is Brandon Belk, who two days before his death in 2013 was cleaning a frack tank for Badlands Power Fuels, Mike Soraghan reports for EnergyWire. Federal worker safety inspectors found the working conditions dangerous, and "his autopsy says he died from pneumonia—fluid in the lungs—which points to the chemical exposure" of a mix of solvents and petroleum gunk.

But Belk also had traces of of methadone—a potent and often abused painkiller—in his bloodstream, Soraghan writes. The autopsy report "indicates he wouldn't have died without the methadone and citalopram, an antidepressant for which he had a prescription. And his death certificate states he had no 'injury at work.'"

"To his former employer, that settles it," Soraghan writes. "So, too, for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the North Dakota workers' compensation system, which has denied death benefits to his 13-year-old daughter."

Liz Merritt, an executive of Nuverra Environmental Solutions, Power Fuels' parent company, wrote, "The North Dakota Forensic Medical Examiner's Office report concluded the death was an accident unrelated to the workplace. We can provide no further details or information regarding this incident."

"North Dakota Forensic Examiner William Massello said sometimes he just doesn't know whether a death is job-related. When that happens, procedures dictate that he just check 'no,'" Soraghan writes. Massello told him, "Sometimes, we might not be sure whether it's work-related or drug-related—or a combination of both—so we have to check off 'no.' Sometimes the person has an accident, and they go home, and they take drugs—too many drugs. And the issue is, what role did the accident play in this? It isn't clear."

What also isn't clear is whether proper safety precautions were taken, Soraghan writes. "The employees who had cleaned the tanks were inexperienced. No one tested the air in the tanks before they got in. Some didn't wear eye protection and protective clothing in the confined space. None of them wore a respirator."

"During OSHA's investigation, Nuverra acknowledged a mistake, according to the case file, which EnergyWire obtained under the Freedom of Information Act," Soraghan writes. "'Low-level managers had sought out new chemicals that could clean out frack tanks faster, but they didn't have a procedure for making sure they were safe."

OSHA "fined the company $17,000 for failing to evaluate the danger to the workers in the tanks and failing to train employees to properly handle the hazard," Soraghan writes. "But when the medical examiner's report came back, citing the methadone as a prominent factor in his death, OSHA changed its inquiry from a death investigation to a standard inspection." (Read more)

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