Oil Refineries

Summary

The United States economy depends on oil production. Oil products are used in every economic sector and have been since oil discovery happened in 1857. Technology advanced as chemical engineers developed refinery methods of turning crude oil into petroleum products like fuels, plastics and clothing.

 Oil refineries were built across the nation and directly employed thousands of workers. These large and complex refinery facilities also exposed their workers to lethal amounts of asbestos.

America has 137 oil refineries in operation today. No new refineries were built after 1976 when stringent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations came into force. Refineries that were expanded and remodeled after that date, however, now process an average 18.9 million barrels of oil daily. Some of the refined oil products include gasoline, heating oil, grease, lubricants, jet fuel and asphalt tar. Refined oil is also a component of wax and sealants.

The EPA also regulated asbestos use in oil refineries. So did the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Every American oil refinery contained tons of asbestos products. From the 1920s to the mid-1980s, asbestos was the choice material for insulating and fireproofing oil refineries. These chemical plants were hot and flammable places that needed the protection asbestos could provide.

Asbestos Use in Oil Refineries

Oil refineries used asbestos in raw and blended forms. It was added to other materials to give support strength and durability. Asbestos is a naturally-occurring mineral consisting of fibrous structures that are easy to blend with other materials used in oil refinery construction. Besides being fire resistant and having inert thermal properties making asbestos an ideal insulator and fireproofing material, asbestos was non-corrosive and would not conduct electricity. Asbestos was also widely available, stable under intense pressure and economical to purchase.

MJN Brief

Warnings of health risks to oil refinery workers from airborne asbestos exposure were known as far back as the 1930s. Many asbestos product producers and suppliers were also aware of the deadly disease potential asbestos exposure had. Some oil company executives and refinery managers knew that asbestos exposure was harmful to their workforce. These culpable parties put profits before people and continued installing asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) into their oil refineries.

However, the average refinery employee didn’t know how dangerous long-term asbestos exposure would be. Daily, they worked in asbestos-containing environments and had prolonged exposure to large amounts of asbestos particles in the air.

Some of the ACMs used in oil refineries included:

  • Chemical boiler fireproofing and insulation.
  • Pipe wrapping and electrical cable protection.
  • Wall and ceiling insulation.
  • Pipe joint gaskets.
  • Paints, glues and sealants.
  • Furnace and pump linings.
  • Wallboards, floor tiles and work surfaces.

Asbestos was also used to create fireproof fabrics. Refinery workers required personal protective clothing like suits, aprons, coveralls, boots, gloves and masks to shield them from dangerous chemicals and high temperatures prevalent in refinery work. For seven decades, oil refinery employees wore gear made of ACMs. As protective clothing aged, it became friable and released crumbled asbestos particles around the workers.

Oil Refinery Workers Exposed to Asbestos

Asbestos was finally banned and removed from oil refineries by the 1990s. Many refineries still have components made with or coated by ACMs, but they’re reasonably safe and stable as long as these products aren’t disturbed. We now know a great deal about asbestos exposure health risks, but during the peak period when asbestos products were in use, most oil refinery workers had active exposure.

Some of the affected oil refinery workers were:

  • Boilermakers and welders.
  • Chemical engineers and designers.
  • Pipefitters, electricians and HVAC installers.
  • Insulators and pipe wrappers.
  • Maintenance and janitorial workers.
  • Drywallers and painters.
  • Millwrights, machinists and drill press operators.
  • Quality control officers and lab technicians.
  • Administration and clerical staff.

Asbestos exposure risk was highest when ACMs were drilled, sawn, cut, sanded and fitted into place. Disturbing stable asbestos caused tiny particles or fibers to dislodge. Because asbestos fibers were so small and light, they would float in the air for extended periods. That’s when unprotected oil refinery workers would inhale these sharp and dangerous mineral shards.

Inhaled asbestos fibers lodged in workers’ lungs and attached to their lining or mesothelium. Asbestos fibers can’t be expelled once embedded in the mesothelium. These microscopic irritants form scar tissue that can eventually cause a deadly form of lung cancer called mesothelioma. Aggressive mesothelioma is impossible to treat. The only recourse is compensating these workers.

Compensation for Oil Refinery Workers with Mesothelioma

Oil refinery workers who developed mesothelioma from workplace asbestos exposure are entitled to compensation. They can claim personal injury damages, money for lost income and expenses for medical treatment. Families of mesothelioma victims can file on their behalf. They can also sue in wrongful death cases.