Working in an oil refinery carries many of the same asbestos risks as numerous other construction and industrial occupations. This is because of the uniaque properties of asbestos; like rock (which it actually is), asbestos is heat-resistant, flame retardant and virtually impervious to many chemical reactions. Unlike most types of rock, asbestos is soft and pliable enough to be used in everything from gaskets to protective gloves.
Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to keep asbestos in place; gaskets used in machinery have been shown to result in exposure to chrysotile fibers among auto mechanics. Protective gloves suffer wear and tear, exposing the asbestos fibers inside; insulation and fire-resistant surfaces become friable, or crumble and begin to shed asbestos fibers as they age. In any of these instances, the asbestos fibers are able to become airborne, entering a person’s body, and potentially leading to any number of illnesses, including asbestosis and the deadly asbestos cancer known as mesothelioma.
Mortality Among Oil Refinery Workers
A study in Great Britain tracked over 45,000 oil refinery and petroleum distribution workers over several years. The workers studied had been employed for a minimum of twelve months between 1946 and 1971. Although those who worked in petroleum distribution showed no abnormal amounts of cancers or other illnesses, those who worked in oil refineries had “significantly elevated” rates of mesothelioma and melanoma compared to the general population.
The Refining Process
The process of refining crude oil into gasoline as well as dozens of other products involves the use of heat and chemical means, which is why asbestos has been present in oil refineries from the beginning, not only in insulation and working surfaces, but in protective gear as well. In the old days, fractional distillation was the most common way to distill the various hydrocarbon components, or fractions from crude oil. This process took advantage of differential of boiling points among the various “fractions”.
Because this involved the application of high temperatures (around 720 degrees F) to a substance that is already flammable, ACM (asbestos containing material) insulation was used to protect the distillation columns, pipes and conduits, as well as work surfaces and gaskets used to assemble and seal various components.
A major refinery accident that took place in Texas City, Texas in March of 2005 brought safety issues into focus for the nation where fire dangers are concerned. The accident, which occurred at a BP refinery, injured 100 people and immediately took 15 lives. The company also admits that when Hurricane Rita brushed past the Texas coast, the winds caused “significant wind damage” to the refinery’s insulation, carrying significant amounts of asbestos from the plant’s 27 mile steam system. It is likely that in addition to employees who suffered direct exposure, many inhabitants of the town will suffer indirect exposure from asbestos.