If you work in the oil and gas industry, then you know how dangerous the job can be. The conditions can be harsh and the weather unpredictable. Not to mention the hazards that exist with complex industrial equipment. But did you know that one of the most serious hazards you’re exposed to is something you can’t even see? That’s right. The invisible hazards we discuss here are some of the deadliest gases in the industry.
1) Petroleum Gases
What they are: Petroleum gases and vapors consist of harmful toxins like benzene, butane, and methane. In the oil and gas industry, petroleum gases are often referred to as “sweet gas” or hydrocarbon gas.
Employees that work with oil storage tanks have the highest risk of exposure. OSHA records show that there were 9 deaths from exposure to petroleum gases since 2010.
These deaths occurred while employees were gauging and thieving oil storage tanks. They experienced sudden exposure to high levels of gases. Most were killed instantly.
Why they’re dangerous: Some of these gases, including benzene, are carcinogens. Petroleum gases can cause both short-term and long-term health effects. If employees are exposed to high concentrations, they can experience acute toxicity to the nervous system, liver, and kidneys.
How to control: The best way to control exposure to petroleum gases is to wear a Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (or SCBA). Wearing SCBA’s is now a common and recommended practice for these employees.
2) Hydrogen Sulfide
What it is: Hydrogen sulfide, or H2S, can be one of the deadliest hazards in the oil and gas industry. It’s formed in the decay process of organic material. In the oilfields, it’s commonly found in formations that are being drilled for oil.
Oilfield workers, service workers, and contractors are all at risk for exposure.
H2S is sometimes referred to as “sour gas” because of its unmistakable odor of rotten eggs. However, in high concentrations of H2S, the gas becomes odorless as it deadens the sense of smell. So, employees should not rely on their sense of smell for detecting this type of gas.
Why it’s dangerous: H2S is a toxic gas that can cause both short-term and long-term health effects. Here’s a list of symptoms associated with H2S exposure:
- Irritation to the eyes and nose
- Loss of consciousness
Sudden, high concentrations of H2S can cause immediate death. OSHA classifies the cause of death as poison.
Hydrogen sulfide is also considered to be a flammable gas, and is explosive under extreme conditions. Do not allow smoking or hot work in areas where H2S may be present.
How to Control: There are many ways to reduce the risk of exposure to H2S. Below is a list of controls you can put into place to protect your employees.
Monitoring Equipment: Employees should wear personal monitors, such as a 4-Gas monitor, when working in high risk area. These monitors detect the levels of H2S in the surrounding area. Pair drilling equipment with electronic H2S monitors that have audible and visual alarms.
Respiratory Protection: Employees must wear appropriate respiratory protection in areas that have concentrations above OSHA’s Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL). SCBA’s are the best option.
Engineering Controls: Use wind socks in outdoor areas where there is potential for hydrogen sulfide exposure. If monitoring equipment detects H2S, employees should move upwind and away from the hazard.
Training: Train employees on the hazards of H2S exposure. They should be able to recognize symptoms of exposure, and know how to respond in an emergency.
3) Diesel Exhaust
What it is: Much of the equipment used in the oil and gas industry is powered by diesel engines. Diesel exhaust is a mixture of gases and particulates produced during combustion of the diesel fuel.
Why it’s dangerous: Workers exposed to diesel exhaust are at risk of developing a wide range of health effects, including:
- Irritation to eyes and nose
- Respiratory disease
- Lung cancer
How to Control: OSHA does not have any specific standards or PEL’s for diesel exhaust. But, there are a number of ways you can reduce the risk of exposure.
- Use low emission engines and low sulfur fuel
- Use appropriate exhaust after treatment devices, such as filters and oxidation catalysts
- Beware of black smoke, which is a result of improper fuel-to-air ratio. Black smoke indicates engine is in need of maintenance.
- Use monitoring equipment, such as CO detectors, when working in areas concentrated with diesel exhaust.
- Always make sure mobile equipment is in open air. If that’s not possible, usein a large, well-ventilated room when engine is running.
4) Mercury Vapor
What it is: Liquid mercury has hazards of its own. But, in the oil and gas industry, mercury vapor is a major concern.
Mercury is a natural component in oil and gas. During drilling operations, it can accumulate on steel pipes and other processing equipment. As processing fluids are cooled, the liquid mercury condenses within heat exchangers, separators, valves, and piping.
When this equipment is later handled, taken apart for repair, or maintained, workers can become exposed to mercury vapor.
Why it’s dangerous: Over time, workers can experience health issues in their central nervous system. Such issues include tremor, nervousness, and changes to their personality.
Other known health effects from mercury include damage to the kidneys and loss of vision or hearing. Women exposed to mercury are at risk of passing on the poison to unborn fetuses and any future children.
How to Control: Owners should conduct a risk assessment for mercury at their job site.
Avoid equipment that has potential for absorbing or accumulating mercury.. There are certain sampling components that can be heated and/or coated with a material that does not react with mercury.
5) All Flammable Gases
What they are: Most of the deadly gases discussed in this article are not only toxic, but also flammable., There are several other flammable gases used in this industry. Examples include:
- Compressed gases used in maintenance and production operations
- Various chemicals used for maintenance, production, and everyday use
- Natural gases found during the drilling and production stages of operation
- Diesel fuel and gasoline used by mobile equipment operators
Why they’re dangerous: The oil and gas industry is at high risk for fires and explosions. Fires can be devastating to your organization. Employees could lose their lives, property destroyed, and your company’s reputation ruined. A small fire could lead to severe and lasting repercussions. Check out our blog, "Fire Prevention in the Oil and Gas industry," to learn more.
How to Control: Control the risk of fire by having an adequate safety program in place. The safety program should cover these fire-related topics:
- Hot Works
- Fire Risk Assessments
- Emergency Response
Engineering controls will also help reduce the risk of fires and explosions. Equip your worksite with alarms and monitoring equipment that detects fires and alerts employees.