The Risk Management Tool Box Blog

Cal OSHA investigates Oil Tank Fatality

Graham Marshall - Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The dangers associated with performing hot work on oil storage tanks have been re-highlighted by a fatal accident in California.

Cal OSHA is investigating the explosion which occurred when two workers were decommissioning a crude oil tank.

The explosion killed one man, critically injured another and leaves questions unanswered about what safety procedures the men used as they worked on the tank.

The men were using a cutting torch on top of the tank when vapors inside ignited, blowing the 16,800-gallon container some 30 feet in the air and a distance of 79 feet.

The Kern County Fire fire department reported that Cesar Martinez, 24, was blown 40 feet into the air and more than 900 feet distant.

The other worker, identified by their employer Sky-Brand Services as 33-year-old Eric Robles, was also injured.

Both workers believed the tank was empty.

Cal-OSHA investigators determined the two men were assigned to demolish the tank and that Martinez was removing pipe that was to be recycled as scrap metal.

Agency spokesman Peter Melton said “he was using a cutting torch on an enclosed pipe, and apparently gas might have escaped and it ignited". It was unclear who owned the tank and when it was decommissioned, he added.

Sky-Brand partner Dale Hill said Martinez and Robles were removing steel pipeline from the exterior of the tank.

He said the company has done similar work on numerous oil tanks and hasn’t had problems.

“We do everything we can to make sure every precaution is being taken,” Hill said.

In the oil industry, however, the common practice is to keep all flames at least 50 feet away from an oil tank, unless it has been thoroughly cleaned and purged, vented, tested for residual gas and isolated from other "live" processes.

“Fire and gas, they don’t make a good combination,” he said.

Sky-Brand specializes in site cleanup and demolition work, removing scrap metal and selling it, Hill said.

Cal-OSHA’s Melton said the agency’s investigation could take up to six months, during which time it hopes to find out exactly what the two men were doing, what safety precautions were taken, what regulations apply to demolishing such equipment and whether the right tools were being used.

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