In April 2010 at approximately 9:00 p.m., in the remote community of Weeletka, Oklahoma, six young people aged 18 to 32 were socializing at a rural, unmanned oil and gas property when a cigarette or lighter likely ignited a blast that claimed the life of a 21 year old man. Based on witness interviews the explosion occurred when the victim opened the hatch on one of the four petroleum storage tanks present on site that contained approximately 160 barrels of light crude oil. The explosion occurred about 10 minutes after they arrived on site. The group was drawn to the site when they saw the open gate to the normally unmanned property. It was common for young people in this town to hang out in remote oil field properties, and they were largely unfamiliar with hazards associated with oil and gas.
The Chemical Safety Board (CSB), the federal agency charged with investigating serious chemical accidents led the investigation. The CSB learned the site entrance was protected only by an unmarked gate which was routinely left open and unlocked. Aside from the gate, the property was not fenced, and no other protective measures were present warning the public of dangers associated with entering the site. The report also mentioned that the catwalk leading to the top of the tank was unsecured and readily accessible, and tank hatches had no mechanisms allowing them to be secured. Finally, it was possible that signage was destroyed in the fire, but eyewitness reported they saw no warning signs posted on or near the facility on the night of the incident.
And this is not the first time a tragedy like this has happened. A review of CSB records released in mid April indicate that 24 similar explosions and fires occurred at oil and gas production sites between 1983 and 2009 and of those accidents there were 42 fatalities and other related serious injuries. According to CSB records, all these fatalities occurred among teenagers and young adults under the age of 25, and in most cases, explosions were ignited by a cigarette, lighter or match.
“No Place to Hang Out: The Danger of Oil Sites”
Interestingly enough, the tragic incident in Oklahoma occurred only one day after the release of a new CSB safety video called “No Place to Hang Out: The Danger of Oil Sites” (see below for video). The segment was created to educate young people about the hazards of hanging out on oil and gas properties. The 11 minute video, which can also be downloaded from the CSB website, is narrated by a young woman who describes the tragic deaths of two teenage boys killed in October 2009 when an oil tank located in a clearing in the woods near the home of one of the boys in rural Mississippi exploded, while the two boys were hanging out on site. The powerful video is a timely tool that can be used to raise awareness of young people about the dangers associated with socializing on oil and gas properties and a reminder to just stay away from these sites. It could also be used as an engaging safety moment or agenda topic at an employee safety meeting.
Be Diligent in Ensuring that Your Facilities Are Safe
Incidents, such as these, serve as a wake up call to the oil and gas industry. We need to be diligent in ensuring our facilities are secured against unauthorized entry and warning signs are adequately posted. When possible barriers and other security measures should also be employed. An active safety audit and inspection program is critical in keeping management abreast on the safety and security status of our facilities.
As an industry, we should be concerned about these on going incidents across the country and do what we can to prevent them from happening. Tragedies, like these, give us incentive to re-examine our facilities both urban and remote, with fresh eyes to ensure we are doing all we can to protect the public from dangers associated with these sites. We need to educate young people of the dangers of unauthorized entry. As there are no specific federal standards or industry guidance for security at oil and gas sites, it is our obligation and commitment to do what it takes to get the job done right by taking control: secure, fence and warn!