This blog frequently discusses accidents in the oil and gas industry and the injuries and fatalities they cause. But what about occupational illness, another important concern of workplace safety advocates? It turns out that oil and gas industry has its own set of occupational hygiene problems that significantly contribute to the development of certain illnesses among workers.
First among the occupational hazards that can the health and safety of oil and gas workers is exposure to the chemicals used at almost every stage of the production process. Workers who are exposed are at risk of developing diseases of the lungs, skin, and other organs. Additionally, workers are frequently in areas with high-intensity noise, which can result in hearing loss.
According to WorkSafe BC, a Canadian publication, oil and gas workers are exposed to a variety of chemicals that can cause serious illnesses and days away from work. These chemicals include hydrogen sulphide (H2S), a colorless toxic gas that smells like rotten eggs. It irritates the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. When exposed to high levels of this gas, workers seldom have much warning until symptoms of poisoning develop. These symptoms can include trembling, unconsciousness and breathing failure. Workers who are exposed at very high levels are at significant risk of sudden death. Workers must wear protective equipment when the presence of H2S gas is suspected.
Although not as frightening, exposure to hydrogen sulphide at even minimal levels may carry health risks to workers. People can develop chronic headaches, poor attention span, memory problems and disruption of motor functions. They may experience cardio-vascular problems. People with asthma are at particular risk and can develop breathing problems at lower levels than those that affect people without asthma.
Another source of occupational illness among oil and gas workers is the fluid used in drilling operations. These fluids are circulated through a well and pick up hydrocarbons along the way. Employees who work on the drilling floor, in chemical mixing rooms, in mud pits and tanks and in shale shakers are at particular risk for exposure. Breathing the fumes from or coming in contact with drillings can result in dizziness, headaches, sleepiness, nausea, dermatitis and respiratory system inflammation or irritation. Some types of drilling fluids have been linked to the development of cancer.
Workers employed in oil fracking are especially likely to be exposed to silica, as the special sand used in fracking operations is around 99 percent silica. Additionally, oil and gas industry workers face exposure from other sources, including cement and concrete, other types of sand and dirt, and asphalt that contains rocks and stone. Workers who frequently breathe the fine crystals of silica are at high risk for silicosis, which causes thickening and scarring of the tissue in the lungs, which in turn can result in shortness of breath, coughing and weakness. These symptoms can be fatal, as can be the lung cancer that has been associated with silica exposure. Workers in areas where they may be exposed to silica should be issued respirators.
Exposure to toxins such as those listed here are not the only cause of occupational illness among oil and gas workers. In our next blog post, we will explore some additional sources of exposure among workers in the industry.