Although oil refineries play an essential role in the economy, they pose several potential safety risks. Toxic fumes can irritate the lungs. Various chemicals will irritate unprotected skin. And, perhaps most prominently, work with volatile fuel products may lead to fires and fatal explosions.
However, there is an important consequence of working in an oil refinery that was once easy to overlook: asbestos exposure.
During the 20th century, the hazardous material was ubiquitous in the industry because of its ability to withstand heat, fire and friction. This fact has put refinery workers at an increased risk of diseases such as malignant mesothelioma.
Use of Asbestos Protects the Pipes Not the Workers
Experts from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) describe the use of asbestos in the U.S. as peaking during the mid-1970s. At that point, asbestos was present in more than 3,000 consumer and industrial products, most of which were used for the purposes of insulation, soundproofing or fireproofing.
Oil refineries that had asbestos-containing materials were likely to carry it within gasket materials, protective screens around welding operations or thermal insulation, particularly around pipes. Today, experts understand that asbestos can pose health risks to people around it if it is disturbed and releases mineral fibers into the air.
EWG experts say that meaningful workplace protections from asbestos exposure were not implemented in the U.S. until about the 1980s. Individuals working in facilities that contained asbestos-containing materials before then, including oil refineries, face a higher likelihood of illnesses such as mesothelioma.
Medical Risks of Asbestos Exposure
After public awareness about the medical risks of asbestos exposure began to grow, scientists from around the world began to study the potential dangers that individuals from certain industries faced.
For example, researchers from Canada and Italy measured the incidence of mesothelioma and lung cancer among the oil refinery workers in their respective countries. They discovered that asbestos was linked to at least 96 percent of cases of mesothelioma, as well as between 42 and 49 percent of cases of lung cancer.
Another study from the UK looked at the health of more than 28,000 oil refinery workers and more than 16,000 petroleum distribution facility workers, all of whom were employed at their respective jobs between 1951 and 2003. Results showed that there weren’t any significant trends in the incidence of cancer among those at petroleum distribution plants. However, mesothelioma was clearly an occupational hazard at oil refineries.
In the U.S., the site of the former Hudson Refinery in Cushing, Oklahoma, is considered a toxic site in need of federal funding for cleanup. Among the hazards found in the area was 10 cubic yards of asbestos-containing materials, including pipe wrapping.
Asbestos Exposure on the Job
At Kazan, McClain, Lyons, Greenwood and Harley, we’re proud to represent clients from all industries, including the oil industry. Furthermore, we want to make sure that if you still work in these jobs, you know their rights and how to protect yourself.
Our sister site, OshAction.org, provides a mountain of information about asbestos exposure on the job. You should never be exposed to air in which the asbestos fiber concentration exceeds 0.1 fibers per cubic centimeter averaged over eight hours. If a job is expected to expose you to measurements above that level, your employer must conduct periodic monitoring of the air.
If employers know that you will be exposed to high levels of asbestos, they must be prepared to offer adequate training to you.