Refineries Present Potential Indoor Environmental Hazards

Refineries should ensure their staff have proper ventilation to protect against toxic fumes.

Petroleum companies should ensure their staff have proper ventilation to protect against toxic fumes.

When companies do not protect the respiratory health of their workers, they could face severe penalties.

An oil refinery was recently fined by the Wyoming Occupational Safety Health Administration for multiple workplace safety violations, including for failure to protect workers from hazardous fumes, the Casper Star-Tribune reported. The 22 safety violations could cause the company to be fined over $700,000 – the biggest fine ever issued in Wyoming. During an inspection, it was discovered the company did not implement proper safety controls to protect workers and employees were found to not have emergency response training.

“It is pretty unusual,” said John Ysebaert, an administrator with Wyoming OSHA. “We have several other refineries in the state and have not had this pattern of issues.”

Some penalties were due to reports of 20 refinery workers becoming ill after exposure to toxic fumes. These chemical hazards included hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide.

“Certainly when you have 20 people overcome by fumes, they did not have an effective process or procedure,” Ysebaert said.

In addition to these chemical fumes, petroleum refineries can generate different air contaminants, including particulate matter, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Combat welding fume exposure for workers in Refineries
Oil and gas industry workers who are commonly exposed to toxic gases include metalworking staff. Employees performing hot work, as described by OSHA, through welding, cutting or brazing are at risk for a variety of injuries and illnesses – from skin injuries from sparks or fires to exposure to welding fumes.

As another major hazard, welding fumes can be considered toxic. To limit the health and safety risks associated with toxic gases, or what OSHA considers a “special hazard,” the agency recommends that employers make sure there is enough ventilation from welding and cutting fumes. Confined spaces especially need to have proper ventilation as toxic gases can accumulate.

For controlling toxic gas exposure, OSHA suggests employers implement mechanical ventilation systems for welding fume extraction if employees are working in confined areas, such as fume extraction equipment.

Workers at fined oil refineries were exposed to hydrogen sulfide, which is considered a flammable gas. Welding employees who work around hydrogen sulfide could become burned if a flash fire or explosion occurred. Additional personnel should be stationed in order to guard against this risk or prevent injury to welding workers should materials combust.

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