DALLAS ‒ A worker cleaning the inside of a tank trailer in Pasadena in December 2019 fell victim to hazardous vapors, as did a co-worker who attempted rescue. Months later, in August 2020, two cleaning workers entered a natural gas tanker on a railcar in Hugo, Oklahoma and fell victim to its vapors. Four lives were lost in the tank cleaning industry in less than a year – and part of a troubling trend of preventable workplace deaths in the region.

Since 2016, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the Dallas region has investigated the deaths of 36 workers in the transportation and tank cleaning industry. As was the case in Pasadena and Hugo, failing to follow confined space entry permit requirements and take required steps to prevent workers from inhaling harmful substances can lead to fatal outcomes.

OSHA offices in the region have conducted 136 inspections in the industry since 2016 and, to reduce the risks faced by tank cleaning workers, have established a Regional Emphasis Program. The program will raise awareness among employers in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas, in industries typically engaged in tank cleaning activities, including trucking, rail and road transportation, remediation services, material recovery and waste management services.

Transportation tanks – on trucks, trailers or railcars require cleaning and inspection before they are refilled for transport. Workers who clean these tanks between uses risk exposures to toxic vapors from chemicals, decaying crops, waste and other substances, and to asphyxiation, fires and explosions.

“Too often, employers allow workers to enter tanks without testing atmospheric conditions, completing confined space entry permits or providing adequate respiratory protection,” said OSHA Regional Administrator Eric S. Harbin in Dallas. “Companies with active safety and health programs that train workers to identify hazardous conditions and use required protective measures can prevent serious and fatal injuries.”

The initial phase of this regional emphasis program includes outreach through mailings to employers, professional associations, local safety councils, apprenticeship programs, local hospitals and occupational health clinics, and presentations by OSHA professionals to industry organizations and stakeholders. OSHA encourages employers to take steps to identify, reduce and eliminate hazards related to confined spaces and tank cleaning. Employers can also request OSHA’s free on-site consultation services to help them implement confined space safety strategies and ensure compliance with agency standards.

Following the three-month outreach, the program empowers OSHA to schedule and inspect targeted industries in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana.

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