Written By: Michelle Whitmer,
Last modified: June 4, 2021
Quick Facts
  • National Employment, 2021:
    40,480
  • Similar Occupations:
    Construction Laborers and Helpers, Industrial Machinery Mechanics and Maintenance Workers, Plumbers, Pipefitters and Steamfitters, Reinforcing Iron and Rebar Workers, Stationary Engineers and Boiler Operators, Structured Iron and Steel Workers
  • Previously Exposed:
    Yes
  • Still Being Exposed:
    Yes
  • Asbestos-Related Disease Risk:
    Moderate
  • States with Highest Employment:
    Texas, Louisiana, California, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania

How Are Oil Refinery Workers Exposed to Asbestos?

Oil refinery workers perform vital but dangerous jobs that place them at risk of exposure to asbestos. Prior to changes in federal law, asbestos was commonly used to insulate equipment that operates at high temperatures. Machinery contained asbestos parts, refineries were made of asbestos building materials and workers wore safety gear containing asbestos.

Petroleum is highly flammable and can cause explosions and damaging fires, which formerly justified the use of asbestos because the mineral is highly resistant to heat and chemical corrosion. There are several refinery jobs that put workers at risk of occupational asbestos exposure, including millwrights and welders, pipefitters, boilermakers, electricians and engineers.

Oil refinery workers may operate or control refining or processing units, maintain and repair equipment, control pumping systems, gauge or test oil in storage tanks or regulate the flow of oil into pipelines. All this equipment may have contained asbestos parts or insulation, and maintenance or repair of asbestos materials led to dangerous exposure.

Maintaining and repairing oil refinery equipment required employees to cut, sand and handle asbestos-containing materials, which created asbestos dust. These tiny asbestos fibers were easily made airborne where they could linger for oil refinery workers to inhale.

Asbestos Products Associated with Oil Refineries

Oil refinery workers were exposed to asbestos in machinery and equipment parts, building materials and safety gear. The primary source of asbestos exposure in oil refineries was asbestos insulation.

From the 1930s to the 1970s, it was common for oil refinery vessels to contain highly flammable materials. They therefore needed to be insulated with a fire retardant such as asbestos. The risk of fire in refineries was high, which justified the use of asbestos insulation throughout these facilities before the dangers were widely known.

Worker in silver protective suit with hood
Oil firefighters wore aluminized asbestos safety suits to protect against oil fires.
Protective Equipment

To protect employees from heat and fire, asbestos was used in protective clothing and safety gear, including gloves, aprons, suits, shoe covers and possibly face shields and masks. Companies including Fisher Scientific Company, Guard-Line Inc. and Steel Grip made asbestos gloves, though it is unconfirmed if these brands were used by oil refinery workers.

Refinery Equipment

Asbestos gaskets, sealants, valves and sheets were used on refinery machinery and equipment. Asbestos gaskets, including rope, spiral-wound and metal-jacketed gaskets, were used in piping and pumps to prevent leaks. Pumps were sealed and repaired with asbestos adhesives and sealants. Workers encountered asbestos fibers when maintaining, repairing and replacing asbestos parts.

Orange striped can of Nebel's cement
Asbestos furnace cement or refractory cement lined oil burners and was used to make repairs.
Building Materials

Asbestos was in many different materials used to construct oil refineries, including flooring, walls, ceilings, piping, pumps, putties and heat-resistant paneling. Asbestos cement pipes and other pipes were often wrapped with asbestos insulation. When these materials became damaged, they released asbestos fibers that could be inhaled by anyone working at the refinery.

Insulation

Asbestos insulation was used on pipelines, distillation towers, cracking units, tanks, boilers, ovens, reactors, furnaces, dryers, heat exchangers, pumps and valves. Insulation installed before the 1980s is highly likely to contain asbestos. Old asbestos insulation is found today around pipes, conduits and distillation columns in oil refineries.

Manufacturers of Products Oil Refinery Workers Use

Dozens of manufacturers made asbestos products that oil refinery workers encountered. Some of the most well-known manufacturers include the following.

  • A.W. Chesterton Company: Chesterton manufactured seals, packing, gasketing and hydraulic and pneumatic sealing devices that contained asbestos. These products were used at many oil refineries throughout the U.S.
  • Garlock Sealing Technologies: Garlock made several asbestos products used in industrial workplaces such as oil refineries. Its asbestos products included gaskets, seals, pump packing, valve packing and other types of packing.
  • Hercules Packing Corporation: Hercules made asbestos gaskets that were used in industrial settings such as oil refineries.
  • Johns Manville: JM manufactured industrial asbestos building materials used in oil refineries. It also made asbestos-containing parts used on equipment, including pump packing, asbestos cement, adhesives, putty and insulation.
  • Philip Carey: Philip Carey manufactured asbestos insulation materials for industrial purposes. This included boilers, industrial equipment and pipes. These kinds of products were common at oil refineries.
  • Pittsburgh Corning: This company manufactured asbestos insulation under the brand name Unibestos. Unibestos pipe insulation was used throughout many oil refineries. Unfortunately, the asbestos in these products was amosite asbestos from South Africa, which is known to be highly carcinogenic.
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Oil Refinery Workers and Mesothelioma

Several studies have documented increased rates of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases among oil refinery workers.

  • A 2018 meta-analysis study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine analyzed the risk of cancer for oil refinery workers. Data from 36 studies showed that oil refinery workers are more than three times more likely to develop mesothelioma than the general population.
  • Cancer Epidemiology published a 2018 surveillance study that reported excess deaths from mesothelioma among women who lived near Taranto, Italy, which is home to oil refineries and other industrial sites known to use asbestos.
  • A 2007 British study of more than 45,000 oil refinery workers employed in the industry for at least a year, between 1946 and 1971, found significantly elevated rates of pleural mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.
  • The National Cancer Institute published a study in 2000 that traced cases of mesothelioma and lung cancer in petroleum workers to determine the primary cause. Among oil refinery maintenance workers, they found 96% to 100% of mesothelioma cases and 42% to 49% of lung cancer cases were caused by asbestos exposure. The same study also found two cases of asbestos-related lung cancer in these workers for each case of mesothelioma.
  • A 1994 study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health was the first to report excess deaths from pleural mesothelioma among Italian oil refinery workers.

Mesothelioma is a rare cancer that is primarily caused by exposure to asbestos. There is no cure for the cancer, but treatment is available to help people live longer, better lives with mesothelioma. Working with a doctor specializing in your specific mesothelioma diagnosis will help you access the best treatments and innovative clinical trials.

Exposure to asbestos causes other cancers, including lung cancer, ovarian cancer and laryngeal cancer. It also causes asbestosis, an incurable pulmonary disease that involves progressive scarring of lung tissue.

Legal Options for Oil Refinery Workers Exposed to Asbestos

Manufacturers using asbestos in products have been sued by oil refinery workers who developed mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis. Workers have filed personal injury lawsuits, and family members who lost loved ones have filed wrongful death lawsuits.

  • In March 2021, a California appeals court upheld a $25 million verdict for oil refinery worker Houshang Sabetian, who claimed exposure to asbestos pipe insulation at oil refineries caused him to develop testicular mesothelioma.
  • In February 2020, a Washington appeals court affirmed a $4.5 million covenant agreement for mesothelioma plaintiff Robert Ulbricht, who claimed he developed mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos while working in an oil refinery in Washington from 1973 to 1999. A covenant agreement is often used to get a rejected settlement offer back on track. Ulbricht initially offered to settle with defendant PM Northwest for $3.5 million, but his offer was rejected. Two days before trial, attorneys for the plaintiff and defendant met and agreed to a $4.5 million covenant agreement where PM Northwest admitted liability and Ulbricht agreed not to execute his claim in court based on that admission.
  • Ginger Hall, the wife of a refinery worker, filed a mesothelioma lawsuit in 2012 against 11 companies connected to her husband’s work, including Chevron U.S.A., Citgo, DuPont, ExxonMobil, Huntsman Petrochemical, Mobil Chemical, Mobil Oil, Oxy USA, Texaco, Union Oil and Unocal Corp. According to her lawsuit, Hall was exposed to asbestos through her husband’s employment at several refineries because he would come home with asbestos dust on his clothing. After years of secondary asbestos exposure, Hall began to suffer breathing difficulties and eventually developed cancer. The outcome of Hall’s lawsuit remains unpublished.
  • In June 2007, Amanollah Shahabi, a 76-year-old Iranian-American oil refinery engineer, was diagnosed with mesothelioma. For more than 40 years, Shahabi was exposed to asbestos at the different oil refineries where he worked. In 2008, after a trial lasting more than a month, a jury awarded Shahabi $14.8 million.

A mesothelioma attorney is the best professional to handle your claim because they have the training, resources and experience to maximize your compensation. You may be eligible to file asbestos trust fund claims in addition to lawsuits, depending on your exposure history.

If you’ve lost a loved one to mesothelioma, you may be eligible to file a wrongful death claim or file similar claims with asbestos trust funds. Compensation is available to cover medical bills, lost wages and funeral expenses.


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