How Are Oil Refinery Workers at Risk of Asbestos Exposure
Asbestos was used for many years in building materials and construction products meant to resist heat and chemical reactions, making them commonplace at oil refineries. The toxic chemical was used in many different products at facilities across the nation, including mastic, drywall, ceiling and floor tiles, insulation and for the gaskets used in the refinery equipment itself. On ships, where fires pose a deadly risk for workers, asbestos could be found throughout the facilities, including in doors, boiler insulation and even clothing and suits worn by the crew.
- Boilermakers and boiler operators
- Construction workers
- Maintenance workers
Asbestos insulation, gaskets, valves and other materials were produced for use in factories, plants and manufacturing sites for high heat areas. A large number of manufacturers produced asbestos materials that were used in refineries, including the A.W. Chesterton Company, Armstrong International, Owens Corning, Quigley Company and North American Refractories Company (NARCO). However, when these products are damaged, drilled, sanded, scraped or improperly removed by employees, asbestos dust may be released into the air. Those exposed to the airborne asbestos fibers may develop a number of asbestos-related illnesses, including lung cancer and pleural mesothelioma.
According to a study monitoring more than 10,600 petroleum refinery employees over the course of 56 years, researchers found a marked increase in mesothelioma deaths among maintenance employees. Researchers further observed the risk of mortality from mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease nearly doubled in those who worked at a refinery for 10 years or more compared to an employee of at least one year. Another study published in 2017 had similar results, suggesting that petroleum refining had one of the highest malignant mesothelioma proportionate mortality ratios of more than 200 industries studied.
Preventing Asbestos Exposure
Oil refinery workers have certain employee rights through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that must be enforced by employers. For example, warning signs and labels have to alert workers of asbestos-containing products. Employers also have to ensure that employees have protective equipment on in areas where asbestos concentrations may be above permissible levels.
When employees are working in areas where asbestos could be disturbed, employers must ensure their workers are using the proper equipment:
- Employers are required to provide workers with powered respirators if they choose to use them.
- Employees are required to use, at the very least, a half-mask respirator with a HEPA filter.
- At no point in time should an employee handling asbestos be using a dust mask. This type of mask is not suitable for filtering out asbestos fibers and could result in a plant worker exposing themselves to asbestos particles.
It’s also important that precautions are taken in areas and situations where asbestos could become airborne. For example, power tools need to be equipped with systems to catch any loose fibers or use a wet method, which keeps the materials damp and prevents asbestos fibers from entering the air.