Asbestos was widely used as a primary form of heat-resistant insulation throughout the British oil industry at the height of both asbestos imports and domestic oil production in the middle decades of the 20th century. Whilst supply from North Sea oil (and gas) peaked in 1999 – in the same year that white asbestos imports were finally banned – the legacy of asbestos use in UK oil refineries continues to darkly spill into the 21st.

The debilitating health conditions now suffered from years of exposure to the deadly mineral was heard in a recent case of a former rigger who worked at a Manchester-based refinery during the 1970s and 80s. The rigger, now in early 60s, was diagnosed with asbestosis – a fibrosis and scarring of the lung tissues – which leaves him struggling to catch his breath and a need to lie down after taking a short walk to the local shops.

Protective clothing woven with asbestos

As recently as 2003, research conducted among 45,000 oil refinery workers who were employed in the industry for more than 12 months up until the early 1970s showed a “significantly elevated mortality” from pleural mesothelioma cancer.

During this period, oil refineries – in common with many British industrial workplaces – not only installed gaskets and other machinery parts made from asbestos but also used asbestos materials to line the miles of pipework, conduits and distillation columns, including floors, walls and work surfaces. In addition, a lack of asbestos awareness or information about the deadly health risks meant that oil refinery workers would innocently wear protective clothing, such as hoods and gloves, which were also made of a material interwoven with asbestos material.

Hundreds of different personnel were employed at a refinery site, which meant a high risk of exposure to asbestos by a variety of construction workers, pipefitters, boilermakers, millwrights, welders, electricians, system operators and maintenance crews.

Worked in close proximity to thousands of asbestos-lagged pipes

In his statement the former rigger said that during his time at the refinery between 1977 to 1985, he worked in close proximity to thousands of asbestos-lagged pipes, which ran throughout the site. After first setting up the scaffolding, part of his regular duties was to replace old pipes, equipment and machinery, which also required the removal of asbestos insulation covering the pipes.

On one occasion, the rigger recalls working as usual on a scaffold below other men also stripping the pipework, when amounts of asbestos fell “like snow falling from the sky”, which completely covered him from head to toe.

Diagnosed with asbestosis thirty years later, the former oil refinery worker says his condition has so severely reduced the quality of active life in his retirement years that he can “just about make a cup of tea”. A further limitation is the inability to travel abroad or hold a driving licence, and his wife has to do everything for him.

It was during the 1970s that studies were developed to investigate the incidence of different types of cancer among male employees working in UK oil refineries and distribution centres. A comparison would be made between cause-specific deaths and site-specific cancer registrations with expectations based on national mortality and cancer incidence rates.

Site-specific study of oil refinery workers

The original study group comprised 34,569 male workers at eight oil refineries and 23,358 workers at 476 petroleum distribution across the UK with a minimum period of employment of 12 months in the period 1950–75. A further 5 years of mortality data (1999–2003) was analysed in the overall period of follow-up (1951–2003), together with previously unreported cancer registration data for the period 1971–2003.

The date revealed that the oil refinery workers showed a “significantly elevated” rate of mortality for pleural mesothelioma cancer. In addition, instances of pleura mesothelioma cancer in refinery workers were identified on the basis of death certificate or cancer incidence data. Further studies have shown a 96 -100 per cent connection between mesothelioma and workplace related asbestos exposure among oil refinery maintenance workers.

The former rigger and his family need to collect further evidence in the pursuance of their asbestosis claim. They are calling upon colleagues who also once worked as riggers, fitters, or asbestos laggers at the refinery during the 1970s and 1980s to give their accounts of conditions at the time.

Asbestos exposure victims could continue to lose their lives until 2030

Today there are 14 oil refineries around the UK to service around 97 per cent of domestic consumption. An estimated 70 per cent of the UK’s primary energy consumed in the UK by 2020 will still come from oil and gas.

Ironically, at the same time the Health and Safety Executive warns that 2,500 victims of asbestos exposure – the latest and highest average reached – will continue to lose their lives to the incurable cancer of the lung linings until predicted to peak in 2020. It has also been suggested that the numbers could continue at the same level or even higher until at least 2030.