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Asbestos Exposure in Oil Refineries

Oil refineries are large facilities that process petroleum, also known as crude oil. This natural product is drilled from the ground and then sent to refineries to be boiled, separated, and processed into usable products like kerosene, gasoline, diesel, and heating oil. Crude oil, intermediary products, and final products are transported through these large refineries through pipes.

Refineries can be dangerous places to work with fires and explosions always possible, in spite of safety measures. Another danger that has caused countless refinery workers to get sick is asbestos. Because of the risks of fire and the dangers of heat used in refineries, asbestos has been used in insulation, fireproofing, construction materials, and even protective equipment for workers. Asbestos was used much more in the past, but is still used today and puts workers at risk for illnesses like mesothelioma.

U.S. Refineries

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more than 42,000 people working in refineries in the U.S. There are nearly 150 oil refineries, with most people in the industry employed in Texas. Refineries require a lot of specialized workers. The types of jobs that people do in these facilities include welding, pipefitting, electricians, boiler operators, engineers, and mechanics. Workers in refineries operate processing units, design and test equipment and products, and maintain and repair machinery.

Asbestos in Refineries

Exposure to asbestos is linked to illnesses like asbestosis and mesothelioma. People who work around asbestos may be diagnosed with mesothelioma decades later. Asbestos is not used as extensively in refineries as it used to be, but workers who retired years ago, are no facing the possibility of getting sick. Even current workers are still at risk because asbestos is still used in some applications in oil refineries.

Insulation is a major use of asbestos in this environment because it is highly effective at insulating from heat and resisting fire. Wherever heat and the risk of a fire breaking out are dangers, asbestos may be used as thermal insulation or fireproofing. Asbestos insulation was put in place around pipes, lining tanks and boilers, in furnaces, heat exchangers, pumps, reactors, and tanks.

Asbestos was also heavily used in machinery components such as gaskets. Sealants in gaskets and pipes used asbestos to prevent leaks. Construction materials used to build refineries, including flooring, roofing, ceiling, adhesives, tapes, and wall materials, also included asbestos. Refinery workers even used protective equipment made with asbestos. Gloves, shields, and clothing with asbestos were designed to protect workers from high heat and fire.

How Refinery Workers Are Exposed

Asbestos was used heavily in oil refinery construction, and most of those still in operation today were built before many regulations were put in place limiting its use. Although abatement has been done in some instances, with trained professionals identifying and removing dangerous asbestos, most refineries today still contain asbestos that can harm workers.

Refinery workers in the past were at a much greater risk, but even today’s workers can be exposed to asbestos when it becomes damaged. Asbestos is safe when it is contained. If a product with asbestos in it, like insulation around a pipe, is damaged or disturbed, the asbestos fibers can get into the air. Once in the air, worker may inhale them and suffer the damage caused to lung and other tissues in the body.

Maintenance and repair workers are at particular risk because they take components apart, and in doing so may disturb old asbestos. Anyone working around repairs, installation, or maintenance of equipment containing asbestos may become exposed. All people in a refinery, and even people in surrounding towns, may be at risk for asbestos exposure during tragic explosions. Refineries have been known to explode, and beyond the immediate and obvious dangers, this kind of accident can also spread asbestos fibers into the air.


Several studies have been done to investigate asbestos exposure and mesothelioma in oil refinery workers. Studies from various locations have found that these workers have been exposed to asbestos and are at a greater risk for mesothelioma than the general population. The first study to make the connection between asbestos and mesothelioma in refinery workers was published in 1994. Researchers looked at men working in Italian refineries between 1914 and 1988 and compared white collar workers to blue collar workers, like maintenance workers and electricians.

The researchers found that the blue collar workers were more at risk for mesothelioma and that most of the cases of mesothelioma could be attributed to asbestos exposure on the job. A more recent study confirmed that asbestos in refineries was causing mesothelioma. This one looked at workers in Canada as well as Italy and found that at least 96 percent of the cases of mesothelioma were due to exposure to asbestos. These results have since been backed up by similar studies in other locations, like the United Kingdom.


If you worked in oil refineries and are now facing a diagnosis of mesothelioma, there is a good chance your cancer was caused by exposure to asbestos on the job. Others like you have started and won lawsuits against refineries and manufacturers of equipment and materials used in refineries that contained asbestos.

One of these was brought by a man who was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2007. Amanollah Shahabi worked in refineries in the 1980s. He filed a lawsuit and won a settlement from the A.W. Chesterton Company, which manufactured gaskets, hydraulic devices, and other refinery equipment with asbestos.

Another lawsuit has been filed against several petroleum companies, including ExxonMobil and Texaco. Ginger Hall, married to a worker at these refineries, developed mesothelioma from secondhand exposure to asbestos. Her husband brought fibers home on her clothes for years, and inhaling them led to her cancer. She is filing suit claiming that the companies for which her husband worked failed to provide adequate protection against asbestos.

Refinery workers in the past, but also those working today, have been put at risk of exposure to asbestos and all the potential health consequences. If you are in this situation, know your rights, understand how workers are supposed to be protected on the job, and contact OSHA if you believe you are not being provided with adequate protection.

Page edited by Dave Foster

Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available.

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