Accidental Hydrogen Sulfide Exposure on Oil and Gas Rigs

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Accidental hydrogen sulfide exposure is a constant danger on oil and gas rigs. The gas smells like rotten eggs, but the real problem is its toxicity. Hydrogen sulfide is highly toxic to humans, and it is flammable. Our oil and gas work injury attorneys help those who were exposed to dangerous levels of hydrogen sulfide and suffered serious medical problems, including brain damage and death.

How dangerous is hydrogen sulfide?

According to OSHA, hydrogen sulfide exposure was responsible for 46 deaths in seven years among U.S. workers. (OSHA, Hydrogen Sulfide).

Hydrogen sulfide is the second-leading cause of inhalation death in the workplace in the United States, behind carbon monoxide.

In confined spaces, hydrogen sulfide is the top cause of inhalation deaths in the workplace in the United States. (Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Fatal chemical inhalations).

What Is Hydrogen Sulfide?

Hydrogen sulfide is a gas used in industrial settings. It occurs naturally in oil and gas wells, pits, well water, and sewers. It is a byproduct of organic breakdown, including human and animal waste.

The gas is heavier than air. Its weight causes it to pool in low, enclosed spaces like oil and gas wells. It can be generated during oil and gas refining.

What is the molecular formula for hydrogen sulfide?

The molecular formula for hydrogen sulfide is H2S.

Hydrogen Sulfide in the Oil and Gas Industry

Hydrogen sulfide may be released at several stages and places in oil and gas operations, including:

  • Wellheads, well testing
  • Pumps
  • Piping, breaking out, swabbing, tripping
  • Fluid sampling, fluid treatment areas
  • Storage units, water storage
  • Flaring operations
  • Shale shaker area
  • Transporting

What are the dangers of hydrogen sulfide exposure?

Hydrogen sulfide exposure is dangerous for humans even at low levels. It is toxic. A person who is exposed is at risk for permanent brain damage and death.

At low levels, eyes and airways may show signs of irritation. A person should smell rotten eggs. At higher levels, headaches, nausea, and vomiting may occur. The exposed person may have difficulty breathing. At high levels, even limited exposure can cause unconsciousness in a short amount of time or even instantly. Breathing stops, and death may occur.

A Hydrogen Sulfide Safety Data Sheet communicates the following hazards:

  • Flammable Gases
  • Gases Under Pressure – Liquefied gas
  • Acute Toxicity – Inhalation
  • Specific Target Organ Toxicity (Single Exposure) (Respiratory tract irritation)
  • Aquatic Hazard (Acute)

Hazard statements include:

  • Danger (signal word for more severe hazards)
  • Extremely flammable gas
  • Contains gas under pressure; may explode if heated
  • Fatal if inhaled
  • May cause respiratory irritation
  • Very toxic to aquatic life
  • Extended exposure to gas reduces the ability to smell sulfides
  • May form explosive mixtures with air

There are several hazard pictograms to be used in labeling storage containers.

(See a Safety Data Sheet for Hydrogen Sulfide.)

Hydrogen Sulfide Detection and Safety

How is hydrogen sulfide detected?

Hydrogen sulfide may be detected using a portable meter. A person must have training to use the monitor effectively. Air monitoring should be a regular undertaking when working in confined spaces. Several types of monitors and meters can be used, including detector tubes, alarms, reading monitors, and explosion meters. In addition, an employer should take steps to identify risk factors and possible exposure points for workers. They should use job hazard analysis to mitigate risk.

While hydrogen sulfide often smells like rotten eggs, relying on smell alone is inadequate. Exposure to the gas for a sustained period makes the person lose their ability to smell it. In addition, at high concentrations, the loss of smell and toxicity can be instantaneous.

(OSHA, Hydrogen Sulfide, Evaluating and Controlling Exposure).

OSHA Hydrogen Sulfide Limits

What is the acceptable exposure level for hydrogen sulfide in the oil and gas industry?

Ten parts per million (ppm) is the permissible exposure limit for hydrogen sulfide in the oil and gas industry.

What are the OSHA standards for hydrogen sulfide in the maritime industry?

OSHA standards address maritime hydrogen sulfide exposure and safety precautions in several respects, including:

  • Ventilation
  • Process safety management
  • Respiratory protection
  • Confined spaces, testing requirements before entering
  • Hazard communication and education

Some of these standards are specific to the maritime industry, while others are applicable to general industry. An employer must meet respiratory protection standards.

(OSHA, Hydrogen Sulfide Standards)

How is exposure to hydrogen sulfide controlled?

Oil and gas companies must commit to several undertakings to control hydrogen sulfide exposure. They must use exhaust and ventilation systems in work areas. In addition, they should ensure the working area is grounded, non-sparking, and explosion-proof. Workers must be educated about dangers and safety controls. In addition to identification and prevention, there must be procedures and resources for rescuing someone from exposure. Workers should use respiratory and other appropriate personal protective equipment.

Legal Remedies for Hydrogen Sulfide Illness and Injury on an Oil Rig

A person exposed to hydrogen sulfide while working on an oil and gas rig may have legal remedies. Whether it is called an illness or injury, a person exposed to the toxic gas while working on an oil rig may qualify to file a lawsuit against the employer or a third party who is responsible. Damage is often acute, but chronic exposure can cause a number of health conditions.

The Jones Act may apply. There are definitions for vessels and who qualifies as a seaman under the Jones Act that may determine whether it applies. In addition, a worker may rely on third-party negligence laws, or the USL&H (Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act) may give the injured worker an avenue to pursue medical expenses and other losses. These laws vary in their required proofs and the relief they provide, so it is important to determine what law applies to an individual situation.

Lawyers for Hydrogen Sulfide Exposure on Oil Rigs

If you have been exposed to hydrogen sulfide, seek emergency medical care and call Haun Mena. Our Houston industrial oil and gas injury lawyers represent victims of hydrogen sulfide exposure on rigs. We can protect your rights and pursue the compensation you deserve. Contact us for a free evaluation to talk about your case and get answers to your questions. Call or message us today.

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