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Oil Refinery Workers and Asbestos Exposure

The oil refining industry, or petroleum refining industry, plays an important role in Americans’ daily lives. Refinery workers remove crude oil from the ground and then manufacture it into gasoline, diesel fuel, heating oil and other flammable fuels. Other products produced at these plants include paraffins, plastics, tar and some lubricating oils. Despite the dangers associated with the job, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates about 39,000 people across the United States work in the petroleum industry, including high concentrations in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana.

Petroleum refinery workers are also at risk of coming into contact with asbestos-containing materials and products while on the job site. The plants often include a number of building products and other materials that likely contain asbestos, including thermal insulation, electrical products, cement, gaskets and valves. Due to the likelihood of asbestos products being used on these sites, especially prior to the 1970s, there is a risk that workers may have come into contact with asbestos fibers while performing their daily tasks.

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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.

At Risk Trades
  • Boilermakers and boiler operators
  • Construction workers
  • Electricians
  • Machinists
  • Maintenance workers
  • Mechanics
  • Metal/Iron workers
  • Pipefitters
  • Shipbuilders
  • Welders

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 Health and Safety 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:

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.

Author: Tara Strand

Senior Content Writer

Tara Strand

Reviewer: Jennifer R. Lucarelli

Lawyer for Mesothelioma Victims and Their Families

Jennifer R. Lucarelli

AFSCME. Federal OSHA and EPA Asbestos Laws.

Carter J. Asbestos: What you don’t know can harm your employees’ health and expose your oil and gas business to costly, long lawsuits. Oil + Gas Monitor. May 2014.

Data USA. Petroleum refining.

Freudenrich C. How Oil Refining Works. How Stuff Works.

Mazurek JM, Syamlal G, et al. Malignant Mesothelioma Mortality — United States, 1999–2015. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. March 2017; 66(8): 214–218. doi: 10.15585%2Fmmwr.mm6608a3

Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Asbestos Standard for the Construction Industry. Updated 2002.

Strauss E. How Much Money Do Oil Refinery Workers Make? Chron.

Tsai SP, Ahmed FS, et al. A 56-year mortality follow-up of Texas petroleum refinery and chemical employees, 1948-2003. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. May 2007; 49(5):557-67. doi: 10.1097/JOM.0b013e318057777c

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