Asbestos exposure in oil refinery workers is an ongoing problem. Oil refineries convert petroleum into refined products, a process that requires a lot of heat and insulation, which in the past was high in asbestos. Some refineries still contain asbestos today, putting workers at risk of developing serious illnesses like mesothelioma.
About U.S. Oil Refineries and Asbestos
More than 170,000 people work in petroleum refining in the U.S. There are about 130 oil refineries in the U.S., with most industry employees located in the state of Texas. Refineries were once constructed with a lot of asbestos, and older facilities still have asbestos in many components.
Refineries require trained, specialized workers. Jobs people do in these facilities include:
- Electrical work
- Boiler operation
- Mechanical work
- Operating processing units
- Designing and testing equipment and products
- Maintaining and repairing machinery
How Was Asbestos Used in Refineries?
Asbestos is not used as extensively in refineries as it once was. Retired refinery workers now face the possibility of becoming seriously ill. Even current workers are still at risk as asbestos is still used in some oil refinery applications.
Asbestos is most commonly used in insulation. This is because asbestos is highly effective at insulating from heat and resisting fire.
Asbestos may be used as a safety measure wherever a risk of fire and excessive heat is present. Asbestos insulation was installed around pipes, lining tanks and boilers, furnaces, heat exchangers, pumps, reactors, and tanks.
Asbestos was also used in machinery components and construction materials. Some of the many materials in refineries that likely contained asbestos include:
- Roofing materials
Additionally, refinery workers used protective equipment made with asbestos. This equipment included gloves, shields, and clothing designed to protect workers while performing their jobs.
How Were Refinery Workers Exposed to Asbestos?
Most of those facilities, built before any restrictions protected workers, 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 contained. However, if any asbestos product is disturbed, fibers can become airborne. Once in the air, workers may inhale the fibers. 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 and 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.
Was I Exposed to Asbestos in an Oil Refinery?
If you worked in a refinery that was built before the 1980s, it likely contained asbestos. If you worked in maintenance and repair, operated machinery, used heat-protective gear, or handled insulation, the risk is higher.
According to a study from 1991, approximately 90% of refinery workers came into contact with asbestos. This includes both direct and indirect contact. Many workers, the report stated, did not take any precautions.
For these reasons, it is safe to assume you were exposed, and you should talk to your doctor about health screenings.
Oil Refinery Workers Have Higher Risk of Mesothelioma
Several studies have investigated asbestos exposure and mesothelioma in oil refinery workers. Studies from various locations have confirmed refinery 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 appeared 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 that 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 workers in Canada and Italy, this research found that 96% of mesothelioma cases were due to asbestos exposure. These results have since been backed by similar studies in other locations, including the United Kingdom.
- A study of Texas refinery workers followed participants for 56 years. They found that, overall, mortality rates were no higher than the general population. The one exception to this was the increase in mesothelioma seen in maintenance workers at refineries. Those who worked at refineries for ten years or longer had much higher risks of mesothelioma than those that worked for just one year at a refinery.
Oil Refinery Workers and Asbestos Lawsuits
Many refiner workers have filed and won lawsuits against refineries and 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 nearly $15 million 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, the wife of a refinery worker, developed mesothelioma. She suffered from secondhand asbestos exposure because her husband brought home asbestos fibers on his clothing. She is filing a suit against the companies responsible.
- Former workers at a now-shuttered U.S. Virgin Island refinery are currently fighting Hess Corporation in the courts over past asbestos exposure. Over 600 plaintiffs have suited Hess after developing lung diseases from working at the St. Croix refinery. Hess tried to avoid those suits through bankruptcy, but the plaintiffs’ lawyers argue they filed for bankruptcy in bad faith and to avoid over $1 billion in liabilities.
How to Seek Compensation for Asbestos Exposure
If you worked in an oil refinery and now have an asbestos illness, you have legal options. Talk to an experienced asbestos attorney, who will review your case for free. They will give you advice and help you take the next steps if they think you are eligible for compensation.
One option might be to file a lawsuit to seek a settlement or jury verdict. There are many asbestos companies responsible for supplying refineries with harmful asbestos materials. If those companies went bankrupt, you might be eligible for compensation from an asbestos trust fund.
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Page Written by Mary Ellen Ellis
Mary Ellen Ellis has been the head writer for Mesothelioma.net since 2016. With hundreds of mesothelioma and asbestos articles to her credit, she is one of the most experienced writers on these topics. Her degrees and background in science and education help her explain complicated medical topics for a wider audience. Mary Ellen takes pride in providing her readers with the critical information they need following a diagnosis of an asbestos-related illness.
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.