Exposure to hazardous substances can cause long-term health issues
Some employers take shortcuts to fill these spots quickly and the workers hired may not have the knowledge and experience to stay safe in this inherently dangerous industry.
Employers may also take shortcuts with safety by not establishing proper procedures or ignoring the ones that are in place, including those related to exposure to gas and chemicals.
While there have been recent proposed changes to levels of permissible exposure for contaminants that are common on oil fields and offshore drilling sites, employers are in the best position to prevent their employees from unnecessary occupational hazards.
Some of the dangerous chemicals that workers may be subjected to include:
Hydrogen sulfide (H2S)
Hydrogen sulfide (H2S) is one of the most dangerous chemicals that a worker may come in contact with.
Many oil wells produce this naturally-occurring substance and it can be made during the manufacturing process. Workers who come in contact with this gas describe it as smelling like rotten eggs.
This gas is considered one of the most common toxic forms of air pollutants. It is highly flammable and is produced when organic matter decomposes.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends a hydrogen sulfide exposure level no greater than 10 parts per million to 20 parts per million for workers.
Often exposure to H2S is subtle and hard for workers to recognize. Mild side effects when a person has been exposed to concentrations less than 50 parts per million include:
- Irritations to eyes, ears or throat
- Breathing problems
- Poor motor function
- Poor attention span
- Development of memory problems
Breathing in hydrogen sulfide may cause respiratory difficulties and loss of consciousness when workers are exposed to higher concentrations, including those of 100 parts per million or greater.
Another harmful substance that oil and gas extraction workers may be exposed to is silica. Silica sand is often used in the hydraulic fracking process in which the earth is split so that drillers can extract oil and gas.
Silica exposure can result in serious health conditions, including lung disease or other respiratory problems.
One common form of exposure occurs when workers gauge flowback tanks, which are used in hydraulic fracking.
Forms of exposure
Oil field workers may be exposed to these dangerous chemicals and substances in a number of ways, including the following:
- Chemical leaks
- Leaking pipelines
- Wells that are not shut down properly
- Failing to line oilfield pits
- Failing to properly clean up oilfield
- Abandoned oilfields that are not properly maintained
As mentioned above, long-term exposure to many of these hazardous substances can lead to respiratory problems, including breathing difficulty and asthmatic symptoms.
In addition to respiratory problems, some other short and long-term health effects related to exposure to harmful chemicals in offshore drilling accidents include:
- Skin problems, including chemical burns and rashes
- Reproductive problems including birth defects, infertility, stillbirth and miscarriage
- Psychological problems including depression, stress and anxiety
- Other effects including gastrointestinal problems, cancer and visual problems
Preventing employee exposure to harmful chemicals
Employers can take steps to prevent workers from developing respiratory problems due to their exposure at work:
- Provide workers with air monitoring equipment
- Install dust collectors that could remove harmful substances, such as silica, from the air in the workplace so that the concentration level is lower
- Check the filters on dust collectors and monitor the air quality to help ensure these collectors perform properly
- Train technicians on the dangers of worker exposure to various chemicals and how they can monitor conditions in the work environment to determine the concentration
- Make every effort to be in compliance with safety regulations
- Equip employees with respirators that effectively filter out dangerous chemicals and contaminants
The role of workers' compensation in respiratory problems cases
If exposure to hazardous chemicals at the workplace has left you with respiratory or other illnesses, you could be entitled to workers' compensation.
Damages might include:
- Hospital bills
- Other medical bills
- Surgery expenses
- Physical therapy costs
- Plastic surgery expenses
- Transportation expenses
- In-home care
- Lost or reduced earning capacity
- Pain and suffering
- Mental anguish
Breathing in harmful chemicals today can lead to long-lasting and expensive medical issues in your future.
Whether you pursue a legal claim or not, it is important to understand your rights and responsibilities as an employee in the oil and gas industry. Not only to address your own potential case, but to help prevent a future workplace-related illnesses by knowing what problems to look for and how to report unsafe working conditions.
Know your rights
The law requires employers to provide their employees with safe and healthful workplaces. OSHA also prohibits employers from retaliating against employees for exercising their rights under the law. For more information see www.whistleblowers.gov for more information on workers' rights.
If you have questions or concerns about your work site, find your regional or area OSHA office through the OSHA Offices by State webpage or call 1-800-321-OSHA (6742).
You may also want to read:
- Oil Industry Accidents and Laws - an Overview
- Explosions in the Texas oil industry
- Accidents when working offshore
- Plant/refinery accidents
- Oil field accidents