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Oil refineries are industrial process plants where crude oil is transformed into more useful products. Crude oil is a natural product that is removed from the ground through a drilling process. It is then sent to oil 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 a system of pipes.
Refineries are dangerous places to work. In spite of safety measures, there are often fires and explosions. Asbestos exposure in another unexpected hazard of working at an oil refinery. Due to the risk of fire and the danger of extreme heat, asbestos has been used in refinery insulation, fireproofing, and construction materials. It has also been used in protective equipment designed to keep workers safe. Asbestos use was much more common in years past, however it is still used to today, putting oil refinery workers at risk of developing serious illnesses like mesothelioma.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 40,000 people work in United States refineries. There are about 135 oil refineries in the U.S., with most industry employees located in the state of Texas. Refineries require trained, specialized workers. Jobs people do include welding and pipe-fitting. Oil refineries also commonly employ 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
Asbestos exposure is linked to illnesses like asbestosis and mesothelioma. People who work around asbestos may not be diagnosed with mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases until decades after exposure. Asbestos is not used as extensively in refineries as it once was. However, workers who have long been retired are now facing possibilities of becoming seriously ill. Even current workers are still at risk as asbestos is still used in oil refinery applications.
Asbestos is most commonly used in insulation. This is because asbestos is highly effective at insulating from heat and resisting fire. Wherever a risk of fire and excessive heat is present, asbestos may be used as a safety measure. Asbestos insulation was installed around pipes, lining around tanks and boilers, in furnaces, heat exchangers, pumps, reactors, and tanks.
Asbestos was also used in machinery components like gaskets. Sealants in gaskets and pipes also used asbestos to prevent leaks. Construction materials used in the building of facilities, including flooring, roofing, ceiling, adhesives, tapes, and wall materials, also often contain asbestos. In addition, refinery workers used protective equipment made with asbestos. This equipment included gloves, shields, and clothing designed to protect workers while performing their jobs.
How Refinery Workers Are Exposed
Asbestos was used heavily in oil refinery construction. Most of those facilities, built at a time before restrictions were enforced, are still in operation today. Although abatement has been performed in some locations, most refineries today still contain potentially harmful asbestos.
Asbestos is safe when it is contained. However, if n asbestos product is disturbed, fibers can become airborne. Once in the air, workers may inhale the fibers. Once inhaled, fibers may embed in tissues of the human body causing cell damage.
Maintenance and repair workers are at particular risk because they take components apart, often disturbing old asbestos. Anyone working with repair, installation, or maintenance of equipment containing asbestos may become exposed. All refinery workers, as well as residents in the surrounding areas, may be at risk of asbestos exposure, especially during tragic explosions. Refineries have been known to explode, and beyond the immediate and obvious dangers, this kind of accident also spreads dangerous asbestos fibers.
Several studies have investigated asbestos exposure and mesothelioma in oil refinery workers. Studies from various locations have confirmed 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 first examined men working in Italian refineries between 1914 and 1988. The research compared white collar workers to blue collar workers, like maintenance workers and electricians. Researchers found the blue collar workers were at greater risk for mesothelioma. They also concluded most of the cases of mesothelioma could be attributed to asbestos exposure on the job.
A more recent study confirmed asbestos in refineries was causing mesothelioma. Examining refinery worker in Canada and Italy, this research found at least 96 percent of mesothelioma cases were due to asbestos exposure. These results have since been backed by similar studies in other locations, including the United Kingdom.
If you worked in oil refineries and are now facing a diagnosis of mesothelioma, your cancer may have been caused by workplace asbestos exposure. Others workers have filed and won lawsuits against refineries, as well as manufacturers of equipment and materials that contained asbestos.
One lawsuit was filed by a man diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2007. Amanollah Shahabi worked in refineries in the 1980s. Shahabi won a settlement from the A.W. Chesterton Company, a company that 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, wife of a refinery worker, developed mesothelioma from secondhand asbestos exposure. Hall’s husband brought fibers home on his clothes for years. Once inside of their home, Ginger inhaled the tiny asbestos fibers and later developed cancer. She is filing suit claiming the companies that employed her husband failed to provide adequate protection against asbestos.
Refinery workers, both past and present, have been put at risk of asbestos exposure and the potential health consequences. If you have worked in a refinery, it is important to know your rights, understand how workers are supposed to be protected on the job. Be sure to contact OSHA if you believe you have not been provided with adequate asbestos protection.
Page Edited by Patient Advocate 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.