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Safety Tools Ignored at Fatal Gas Leak Site : Accident: Workers saw no threat of deadly fumes, officials say. Three died and four were injured at well.

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Workers for Vintage Petroleum ignored nearby safety equipment that could have saved their lives, because they saw no threat of deadly fumes in the long-dormant well they were reactivating, company officials said Thursday.

Previous checks of the well showed no traces of hydrogen sulfide, the colorless toxic gas that killed three workers and injured four others in an industrial accident at a Rincon oil lease 10 miles north of Ventura two days ago.

“No one involved in this operation thought it necessary,” said Robert W. Cox, vice president of Vintage Petroleum. “No (hydrogen sulfide) gas was expected to be encountered.”

All seven dead and injured oil field workers were exposed to a small concentration of hydrogen sulfide, a common toxic gas that exists in pockets of underground crude oil, rescue officials said.

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The crew members failed to use three common safety tools that could have limited the disaster, oil company officials said. The workers were not using breathing devices, continuous monitors to alert them to the gas or harnesses that would have allowed a quicker escape from the cellar in which they were overcome.

“If these employees had been wearing breathing apparatuses, it is possible they would not have been killed,” Cox said. “But you can’t take that conclusion and work back and say there were obvious mistakes made.”

Some of the workers also apparently violated company safety rules by attempting to rescue their colleagues, Cox said. Guidelines call for employees to retreat immediately from poisonous gas and summon help.

“It’s human nature to want to go to the aid of a co-worker,” Cox said.

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Killed Wednesday were three young oil field workers--Ronald Johnson and Jason Hoskins of Ventura and Sean David Harris of Oxnard.

The condition of the four injured workers improved Thursday, with Jeff Sandoval and Toby Thrower being released from the hospital. Derek Abbott and Jerry Walker remained in Los Robles Hospital in fair condition.

Operations have been suspended at the oil well where the workers died. But Cox said business is going on around the clock at the firm’s other sites nearby. No additional safety measures have been implemented since Wednesday’s tragedy, he said.

A regional manager of Pride Petroleum, which had contracted with Vintage to help convert the oil well to a water-injection line, said his workers used a hand-held detector to check for hydrogen sulfide hours before the accident. But manager Michael Furrow said it was not turned on when the gas leaked.

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Furrow, who said he spent most of Thursday with family members of those who died, said the gases came without warning despite the crew’s safety efforts.

“At the time they were sniffing, there was not anything flowing into the cellar,” Furrow said. “Whatever the gas was that killed our employees was not present when the monitor was on.”

Executives at both Vintage and Pride Petroleum said Thursday that it would be premature to conclude that it was hydrogen sulfide that killed the men. But they offered no other explanation.

Furrow said he could not explain why his workers failed to hook themselves into full-body harnesses that colleagues can use to pull them to safety in emergencies.

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“It’s standard Pride policy and it’s Cal-OSHA policy,” Furrow said. “Before the first man went in, he should have had a full-body harness on, and there should have been someone there at the ready to pull him out.”

Investigators with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or Cal-OSHA, declined to discuss any findings of their investigation.

Specifically, inspectors would not comment on the workers’ failure to use respirators, monitors or harnesses. But one official said Thursday that safety laws are subject to varied interpretation.

“There’s no requirement that every employee always wear a respirator,” said Gene Glendenning, a Cal-OSHA safety expert based in Fresno.

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“You’re only required to wear a respirator when there’s an exposure or potential exposure,” he said. “What we require is appropriate monitoring for the hazardous material involved.”

John Duncan, another Cal-OSHA regulator, said the oil company seemed to be taking a strong defensive stand in declaring that no toxic gas detectors or respirators were needed.

“It’s too early to make such a definitive judgment as to whether the proper safety procedures were followed,” Duncan said. “This is one of the main issues we will be investigating.”

Duncan chastised Cox for continuing to pump oil at other sites without instituting extra safety precautions, such as more use of respirators and monitoring sensors, even if they are not required by law.

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State inspectors have descended upon Vintage’s Rincon field to review the company’s safety record and find out if it adequately protected workers from toxic fumes as a matter of routine.

Pride Petroleum is also being investigated for potential violations of state safety laws. The contracting firm already had a questionable safety record, suffering two fatal accidents and at least 10 other work-related injuries that resulted in hospital stays since 1990, Cal-OSHA records show. The company also has several citations and fines totaling more than $10,000 over the last four years.

“It’s clearly not a good record,” Duncan said. “They’ve had a history of some problems and it should be a source of concern. They clearly should do better.”

But Furrow defended his Texas-based firm’s safety record, saying it spends about $4 million a year on training.

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The Pride Petroleum incident rate is just under seven per 200,000 man-hours of work in the last 12 months, a rate Furrow said was well within industry standards.

There is some record of hydrogen sulfide in the vicinity of the Rincon well, according to maps kept by the State Division of Oil and Gas.

But the most recent public map is 18 years old and compiled strictly from information provided by oil industry sources themselves, said Pamela Morris of the Division of Oil and Gas, which regulates lease operations in California.

According to the 1976 map, the concentration of hydrogen sulfide is about 100 parts per million in the areas around the Rincon lease.

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By comparison, known hydrogen sulfide deposits in some oil fields in Santa Barbara County top 270,000 parts per million, a ratio that makes drilling in that area far more dangerous, Morris said.

Experts say the concentration of hydrogen sulfide must reach 700 or more parts per million to be fatal.

State investigators said Vintage Petroleum executives could be found liable for civil and criminal violations of health and safety codes designed to protect oil workers from hydrogen sulfide and other industry hazards.

“Cal-OSHA requires emergency action plans and the use of appropriate equipment and proper training before an accident, so workers are not jeopardized,” said Glendenning, the Fresno-based Cal-OSHA safety expert.

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Oil companies “are required to test when they’re in an area that has the potential for hydrogen sulfide,” he said. But Glendenning and officials at the accident scene Thursday were not ready to discuss their preliminary findings.

On Thursday morning, survivors hung a white wooden cross to the front gate of the Vintage facility at Rincon for one of the victims.

“For our dear friend Randy Johnson,” it read, in black handwritten letters. “Your family and friends will truly miss you forever. Love from us all.”

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