Mesothelioma in Oil Refinery Workers

Quick Summary

Oil refinery workers have historically been exposed to asbestos as part of their job. Asbestos products were once used on oil rigs, where asbestos dust was inhaled by many of the workers.

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Mesothelioma and Oil Refinery Workers Explained

As of 2011, about 41,570 oil refinery workers existed in the U.S., with an average worker’s age being 38 years old. These workers share some of the same duties as steelworkers, structured iron workers, boiler operators, rebar workers, pipefitters, steamfitters, maintenance workers, mechanics, laborers and construction workers.

According to statistics, oil refinery workers are still being exposed to asbestos today and have a moderate risk of coming down with an asbestos-related disease. Workers in the following states are at the greatest risk for asbestos exposure: Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, California, Louisiana and Texas.

Oil refineries are specialized industrial plants that take crude oil, which comes from out of the ground, and turn it into refined products, such as diesel fuel, heating oil, kerosene and gasoline. The thick liquid that comes out of the ground needs to be boiled in order to be refined. During this process, gases and other chemicals are released that separate the oil from itself. Oil refineries are big factories that involve a lot of piping in order to carry the crude oil and its products from place to place within the plant. These pipes routinely were insulated with asbestos.

There are a number of specialties within the oil refinery business, including engineers, electricians, boilermakers, pipe fitters, welders and millwrights. These workers are needed for the proper functioning of the oil refinery. Working with these flammable products is very dangerous, as the fuel can catch fire. The work is hazardous, yet it is necessary to supply the nation with the oil and gas that it needs.

Oil refinery workers can have many different jobs to do at the plant. Some may be involved in the refining of the oil, while others may test the finished product. Other workers may have jobs tending to the equipment and repairing or replacing pieces as needed. There are also workers who do not directly work with the oil, but have offices close to the refinery. Because of this, any oil refinery worker in the plant can be exposed to the hazards of asbestos-laced materials.

In January of 2012, it was found that there were nearly 150 petroleum refineries in the U.S., employing more than 41,000 oil refinery workers. More than half of these workers were employed in the state of Texas, where there are a large number of oil refineries.

Oil refinery workers have a lot of risks to consider. They must deal with the ever-present risk of fires and explosions, as well as the ever-present threat of asbestos exposure. In the past, asbestos was used to insulate the pipes and equipment used in oil refineries. Since then, there have been alterations in the federal laws so that less asbestos is used in these refineries. Asbestos was popular in oil refineries because it provided an inexpensive insulation and was fire retardant.

Oil Refinery Products That Contain Asbestos

There are several different asbestos-containing products that oil refinery workers are exposed to.

Products in an oil refinery plant that contain asbestos include:

  • Thermal insulation.  Asbestos was commonly used between 1930 and 1970s as an insulator in oil refinery factories because it is non-flammable. Anything in the refinery that involved heat and flame used asbestos as an insulator, including pipelines, pumps, heat exchangers, furnaces, driers, ovens, boilers and tanks. Asbestos is still found in oil refineries that were built before the early 1980s, when it was replaced by less dangerous materials. It is still used in moderation to insulate conduits, pipes and distillation columns.
  • Refinery Equipment.  Asbestos has been used for gasket making, as well as for sealants and other equipment. This equipment can sometimes break down, leading to their repair and to the subsequent exposure of asbestos by the worker doing the repairing.
  • Construction Products.  Asbestos was used to screen welding projects because it was flame retardant. Some types of duct tape are made with asbestos and it was also used as an insulator for ceilings, floors, walls and roofing.
  • Protective Equipment.  Because there is such high heat involved in working at an oil refinery, there is a great risk for being burned. For this reason, workers were given personal protective equipment that was made from asbestos. Many of the employees who used this equipment were inadvertently exposed to asbestos.

Exposure to Asbestos at Oil Refineries

Most workers at an oil refinery were exposed to asbestos when dealing directly with the equipment that processes the crude oil. Others were exposed through their personal protective equipment, while still others inhaled asbestos fibers that came from gaskets and other damaged equipment.

In oil refineries, the oil must be boiled into the correct component parts. This causes the release of gases and allows the chemicals in the oil to separate. Because the boiling is done at such a high temperature, asbestos was used as insulation on many parts involved in the process. Asbestos was desired in these conditions because it reduced the risk of fires and prevented workers from getting burns. It was also found to be resistant to any chemical reactions occurring with the oil.

Employees of the oil refinery were responsible for sanding, cutting and handling materials made from asbestos. These materials gave off asbestos dust that was inhaled by nearby workers. This process happening over many years is what causes mesothelioma or another asbestos-related illness.

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Lawsuits Related to Asbestos

Because so many individuals were exposed to asbestos in refineries and got sick, there have been many lawsuits on behalf of the employee and their families.

If you were or are an oil refinery worker and have been exposed to asbestos, you need to be screened for asbestos-related illnesses. If you have already become sick, you may be entitled to compensation for your exposure to asbestos while on the job.

Veterans Support Team
Christopher Dryfoos PhotoWritten by:

Contributing Author

Christopher Dryfoos is a journalist and member of the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA). As the grandson of the U.S. Navy’s first forensic pathologist, he aims to help veterans with mesothelioma access needed care.

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