Is Benzene Exposure Dangerous for Offshore Workers?

One of the most dangerous aspects of offshore work isn't visible to the people at risk from exposure to it. Benzene is a colorless gas that's a yellow liquid at room temperature. One of the simplest ways to determine the presence of benzene is through its smell, often a sweet odor, but by the point benzene is detectable by odor, that usually means hazardous levels of the gas are present.

Benzene is a product of natural processes and the actions of humans. The gas is a product of crude oil, gasoline, and cigarette smoke. It's also used to make industrial products like dyes, detergents, explosives, synthetic rubber, and pharmaceuticals. Notably, benzene is dangerous to offshore works because of its association with crude oil.

How Much Benzene Exposure Is Dangerous?

In both the long-term and the short-term, benzene is dangerous to humans because of the serious issues it causes. Most serious of all, benzene is a known carcinogen, a cancer-causing substance. It is also a mutagen, something that triggers genetic mutations. On a topical level, benzene can be an irritant to the skin, and irritating to inhale.

How much exposure to benzene is too much?

  • According to OSHA, over an 8-hour shift, workers should be exposed to no more than 1 ppm (part per million) of airborne benzene. As for acute exposure, the limit is 5 ppm within any 15 minutes of the work shift.
  • NIOSH offers much stricter, sensible limitations, recommending that workers be exposed to no more than 0.1 ppm over the course of 10 hours, with a 1 ppm limit for the span of 15 minutes.

Again, this is for airborne benzene. If a worker's skin comes into contact with benzene, then they may well be over any "safe" exposure limits.

In the words of the government resource detailing these limitations, however, "there may be no safe level of exposure" to this carcinogen, so the goal should be to keep exposure to benzene "to the lowest possible level". According to many scientists, the only safe exposure to benzene is zero. While there are some regulation-imposed limitations on benzene, they are not always followed, and even when those regulations are adhered to, they might be enough to keep offshore workers safe.

Why Is Benzene Dangerous in the Short-Term?

Those who inhale or ingest high levels of the gas at once can suffer from multiple symptoms.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, symptoms from short-term benzene exposure include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Vomiting
  • Irritated stomach
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Headaches
  • Tremors
  • Convulsions
  • Confusion
  • Unconsciousness
  • Sudden death (especially from an irregular heartbeat)

Proper personal protective equipment (PPE) can be critical to protecting offshore workers from acute exposure to benzene, PPE such as suits, gloves, footwear, face shields, and more, all of which should be cleaned daily. In certain worksites, a respirator may also be required to keep workers safe.

Why Is Benzene Exposure Dangerous in the Long-Term?

Benzene is classified as a known human carcinogen by the:

  • International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)
  • Department of Health and Human Services
  • U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTP)
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Some of the other well-documented, long-term effects of benzene on a person's health include:

  • Anemia
  • Depleted white blood cell count (potentially life-threatening, as this inhibits the ability to fight infections)
  • Low blood platelet count (excess bleeding and bruising)
  • Reproductive organ issues (in women)

Research reveals that benzene can be most destructive to worker health through long-term exposure of a year or more. Extended and consistent exposure to benzene can harm the bone marrow, making it unable to keep producing enough red blood cells, causing aplastic anemia. Benzene has been closely linked to causing leukemia in particular, especially in workers who have high exposure levels to benzene, such as workers in the oil industry.

Benzene Exposure in Offshore Work

In offshore operations, crude oil is often comprised of up to 1% benzene, but natural gas condensate has a composition of up to 10% benzene. While oil refineries are mostly on shore, offshore drilling platforms that do have refineries can contain gases of up to 60% benzene.

In one study, it was found that workers routinely experienced measurable amounts of benzene exposure:

  • 0.33 ppm during pipeline inspection gauge (PIG) tasks
  • 0.16 ppm in flotation cell work
  • 0.04 ppm in everything from working with valves and filters to breaking pipes
  • 0.01 ppm during sampling

Even if offshore workers are equipped with all the required PPE, there can be exposure to benzene during each work shift, especially when working overtime. With weeks on the job, this adds up to consistent, long-term exposure. In certain roles, the chances of acute, sudden exposure to benzene are also possible. Again, these are risks that offshore workers run during the normal course of work.

While working offshore, there are the heightened risks of exposure from leaks, transportation of crude oil, inspections, equipment maintenance tasks, and so forth. If equipment fails, if PPE is inadequate, or if recommended benzene exposure limits are not upheld, then this could represent negligence on the part of manufacturers or employers. This negligence and other forms of it place offshore workers at undue risk of harmful benzene exposure.

What to Do If You've Been Exposed to Benzene

In the immediate moment, if you've come into physical contact with benzene, take off any affected clothing right away and start washing any exposed skin with lots of soap and water. Then go see a medical professional. If someone inhales benzene directly, it is vital to get them out of the vicinity of any exposure right away and get them to a medical professional.

If you've developed an illness because of benzene exposure during offshore work, help is available. Employers have a responsibility to protect workers from benzene, especially since it is a well-known carcinogen that's found in a variety of products. Your illness was likely preventable with the correct protection from benzene exposure.

At Arnold & Itkin, we have a history of results for offshore workers who've suffered because of the negligent actions of their employers. No excuse is enough to explain why you've suffered so much, and we'll fight for the answers that you deserve during this difficult time. Call us today for help; a consultation with our team is free.

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