What Illnesses Are Common in the Oil and Gas Industry? Part 2

In our previous blog post, we discussed some of the occupational illnesses that workers in the oil and gas industry may suffer as a result of exposure to a variety of toxic substances. This blog continues the exploration of the hazards that compromise oil and gas worker health and safety. 


Workers in certain jobs in the industry may be exposed to mercury vapors as liquid mercury condenses during the cooling process. Employees are especially at risk when dismantling equipment for maintenance. Chronic exposure to mercury vapor can affect the central nervous system. The result may be tremors, anxiety, skin and eye irritations and burns, breathing and hearing problems, kidney problems and changes in personality.

Diesel Fumes and Smoke

Employees who work around vehicles powered by diesel engines may be frequently exposed to the fumes and exhaust produced when diesel fuel is burned. Workers whose jobs involve heavy equipment, generators and other diesel-powered machinery used in the industry are especially at risk. The exhaust from such engines contains carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and particulates that contain aromatic hydrocarbons. Breathing these chemicals can result in lung cancer, upper respiratory irritation, cardiovascular problems and respiratory disease.

Radioactive Substances

Radioactive materials such as uranium, thorium, radium and radon are naturally found in the environment. However, the level of exposure to humans is generally low -except when the environment is disturbed by activities such as oil and gas drilling and production. The degree of exposure depends on the type of geological formation where the oil and gas is found. And even when levels of the radioactive materials in the ground are very low, drilling and extracting processes can concentrate these hazardous materials.

For example, radon and other toxins may be more concentrated in recovery brine, sludge and drilling fluids than it would be in undisturbed earth. Workers are especially at risk of exposure when cleaning pipes and dismantling equipment for maintenance.

People who have been exposed to relatively low doses of such materials over the long term are at risk of developing bone cancer and can also result in damage to children born to exposed workers. People exposed to short-term high doses of radiation may experience radiation sickness, cataracts, sterility, hair loss, thyroid problems and radiation burns.

Because of these dangers, oil and gas employers must take steps to provide workers with protective equipment that limits their short and long-term exposure to these hazardous substances. Failure to do so could make companies legally liable for the illnesses that workers develop as a result of exposure while working in the industry.

Source: WorkSafeBC, WorkSafe Bulletin, Occupational disease hazards in the oil and gas industry,” 2013.