The United States has over 130 refineries across 30 states. Most of the largest refineries are in Texas and Louisiana. Illinois, Mississippi, and Indiana also lead the way in crude oil distillation. Some of the largest refineries are owned by petrochemical giants like Marathon, Valero, Phillips 66, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, BP and Shell. Refinery workers have named these companies as defendants in leukemia case.
Refinery owners were aware of the connection between benzene and certain cancers, including leukemia, since the 1950s. Despite that notice, they did not require, let alone provide, proper training, breathing protection and personal protective equipment (PPE) for their employees and on-site contractors. As a result, petroleum refinery workers are twice as likely to die from toxic workplace exposures than the general public.
Refineries are sprawling networks of piping, chemical processing units, distillation columns and storage tanks. It takes millwrights, welders, electricians, pipefitters, and many different types of engineers to keep them running. Most of these refinery workers at some point or another come into contact with leukemia-causing benzene.
Benzene Odor Threshold
If you recall smelling a sweet, aromatic, gasoline-like aroma in the air, you were likely smelling benzene. At the point where you could smell benzene (the “odor threshold”), you were inhaling unsafe levels of the chemical. Benzene is a known carcinogen. Our experts will testify that there is no safe level of exposure to a known carcinogen.
Benzene is present in gasoline, toluene, asphalt, paraffin wax and other by-products of crude oil. When you get benzene-containing fuels and solvents on your skin, the benzene can be absorbed into your bloodstream. So millwrights using some solvent to clean their hands before lunch, were being exposed to benzene. Workers gauging storage tanks via hatches without vapor capture systems, were inhaling benzene. Operators transferring fuels which often spilled on or near them, were being exposed to benzene.
Petroleum Products and Benzene
There are four main groups of petroleum products produced via the distillation of crude oil: (1) light distillates such as liquid propane gas, paint thinners, naphtha, and gasoline; (2) middle distillates such as jet fuel, kerosene, and diesel fuel; (3) heavy distillates, which include heating oil or lubricating motor oil; and (4) residuum products such as asphalt.
84% of U.S. oil refinery output is made up of gasoline, fuel oil (diesel and home heating oil), and aviation fuel. Most refined products contain benzene, exposing those workers involved in the production process to toxic exposures. When thick crude oil is refined into different chemicals, it is heated which causes toxic chemicals to be vented, and not all of these toxic gases are captured.
Some processes called for the use of pure benzene. Workers drawing samples or testing the product could get this extremely toxic substance on their person or inhale the pure benzene vapors. Within the last 30 years, pure benzene was actually added to gasoline to increase the octane rating and reduce engine knocking. Tests from the 1990’s showed that some super unleaded gasolines contained up to 5% benzene. Today, most gasoline sold in the United States contains 1% benzene.
Workers who maintained the refinery equipment were exposed to benzene through the use of some name brand solvents and degreasers – like Safety-Kleen. The manufacturers of those products can be sued under a theory called product liability for placing a defective product into the hands of a consumer. Sickened contractors who were not directly employed by the refinery where their exposures occurred can bring premises liability claims against the refinery. Some benefits may be available under your state’s workers compensation system. Every claim is unique.
Many of the more dangerous processes at oil refineries are now automated. Beginning in the late 1970’s, the United States government began to institute regulations which helped safeguard refinery workers from toxic exposures. Unfortunately, even today, employees tasked with standard inspection, process turnaround, process sampling, cleaning, or maintenance activities cannot avoid all exposures. Products leak. Contractors are not properly trained. Supervisors don’t follow the safety rules. And so, the exposures go on.
Proof of Benzene on the Premises
In 2018, following complaints from sickened refinery neighbors, the Environmental Protection Agency required refineries to monitor for benzene at the fenceline of their facilities. Ten refineries in the United States were recently found to have benzene levels above the allowable limit. It goes to reason that the workers at those refineries are experiencing dangerous benzene exposures that could one day lead to leukemia.
Refinery owners can be held liable for their lack of training and failure to supply protective equipment. Product manufacturers can be liable for failing to warn the end users of their products.