What Chemical Hazards Do Offshore Workers Face?

When most people think of dangers that offshore workers experience, dramatic images of explosions are usually the first thing to come to mind. While explosions are a constant risk for offshore workers, they are also in contact with dangerous chemicals on a regular basis. If ignored, these chemicals can silently cause injury and death.

Hydrogen Sulfide

Besides being flammable, hydrogen sulfide is also toxic. Hydrogen sulfide escapes during the processing of natural gas and refinement of crude oil. The gas is easily identifiable by its smell, which resembles rotten eggs. However, its presence is not always noticeable. Since the gas is heavier than air, hydrogen sulfide often rests in low areas. Notably, exposure to the gas can also cause a loss of smell. Workers must use respirators and avoid creating sparks in areas that may have hydrogen sulfide concentrations.


Mercury is sometimes present in high concentrations in some formations that are the sites of drilling locations. Regular rig maintenance frequently exposes workers to mercury. Mercury may condense and collect in valves, coolers, piping, and other standard components found on offshore rigs. Exposure to mercury causes issues with the nervous system.


Silica causes a disease called silicosis when workers inhale it. Silicosis is incurable and happens when silica particles scar the lungs. As the disease progresses, it causes difficulty breathing and is often fatal. One of OSHA’s earliest regulations placed a limit on the amount of silica that workers can safely inhale each day. Workers are exposed to silica during cementing operations and the drilling of sand.


Workers are sometimes exposed to naturally occurring radiation as they drill into and extract material from the earth. Dangerous radioactive material may also accumulate in piping, storage tanks, and other common oil rig components. Particular protocols must be followed when workers handle radioactive waste.

Drilling Fluids

Drilling fluids are transferred from the well into systems on an offshore rig. These fluids are often at elevated temperatures and can become hazardous through exposure. Workers exposed to drilling fluids may experience skin irritation, headaches, nausea, dizziness, and drowsiness. These symptoms are often associated with exposure to hydrocarbons.

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