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Asbestos, a naturally-occurring mineral found in certain rock formations across America and throughout the world, became popular in the early 1900s primarily because it was inexpensive to mine and extremely versatile. In addition to its light weight and natural heat-, sound- and corrosion-resistant properties, asbestos rock could be crushed into fibers which added strength and bulk to other products at a very low price. Unfortunately, asbestos fibers are toxic when inhaled or ingested. Their microscopic fibrils can become lodged in the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart, and can eventually cause asbestosis, lung cancer and even a rare and aggressive cancer known as mesothelioma.
In addition to its widespread use as insulation in industrial settings, many people know that asbestos was also incorporated into a variety of consumer and building products. But what people might not know is that a tremendous amount of asbestos was used in the oil-drilling industry.
Drilling for oil requires boring a well deep into the earth on land or under the sea. A heavy-duty drill bit, rotating at high speed against a solid surface such as rock, generates a lot of heat and must be kept cool in order to do its job efficiently. In drilling patents issued in the 1800s, additives such as pecan shells or caustic soda were introduced through a hopper to a drilling-fluid base of ordinary water or oil. This mixture was then pumped down into a bore to lubricate and cool the drill bit, aid in circulation, and flush out cuttings while strengthening the sides of a well. In the 1930s, oil companies established major research programs to design specialized additives called “engineered mud” in response to deeper and more difficult drilling environments. Depending upon the conditions found at each level of subsurface strata as the drill penetrated ever deeper into the earth, drilling mud “recipes” were altered frequently to meet the challenges encountered by sand or saltwater or solid rock.
Chrysotile asbestos fibers were first added to drilling mud in 1963 to alter the viscosity of the circulation fluid as it was forced against the earthen walls of wells being dug thousands of feet deep into the ground in search of oil and natural gas deposits. Other fibrous or granular materials were also introduced into drilling fluid to act as binding agents, to strengthen well walls and to plug spontaneous holes in the sides of a well. Flocculation, a troublesome condition in which clay soil or other charged polymer particles become attached and form a structure, or “floc”, were reduced when additives such as asbestos fiber were utilized as a deflocculant. Additives also aided in preventing blowouts from gas buildup.
The trades who worked on oil rigs where asbestos additives were used were likely to have inhaled the dangerous fibers at some point during every day of their shifts. Some oilfield workers were exposed more continuously than others. Here are some of the various oilfield trades and how each was exposed to the deadly carcinogen:
A roustabout was a general laborer who mainly constructed board roads across dirt fields to get to the drilling site and did other manual labor. He was considered a “gopher” for everyone else on a rig, so he helped whenever a hopper needed filling with additives of any kind. Roustabouts did other construction also, such as building storage sheds, hopper shelters and small outbuildings and offices. A “worm” held the same position as a roustabout except these laborers were also asked to crawl through pipes and down into wells to retrieve objects or perform other functions in tight spaces. Roustabouts and worms frequently helped dump bags of raw asbestos fiber into the hopper to be used as an additive in drilling mud. They also crumpled the empty bags for disposal afterward, releasing even more asbestos fibers into the air they breathed.
A roughneck was also a laborer, but more skilled, performing jobs such as following the mud engineer’s recipe by breaking sacks of raw asbestos additive open and dumping them into the hopper. Roughnecks assisted in pump and valve repair and maintenance, and did general construction, such as setting up a rig, tearing it down, washing the rig, making and breaking drill-stem connections, and painting. Roustabouts were probably more heavily exposed to asbestos than any other trade on a typical oil rig. In addition to their exposure to asbestos drilling-mud additives, roughnecks cut and installed asbestos valve gaskets and rope packing, and pried or chiseled out the old, worn gaskets and packing.
A floorhand worked on the “floor” of an oil rig, maintaining and repairing pumps and motors, plus he was capable of and frequently asked to perform all of the skills and duties of a roustabout when needed. A derrickman worked up on the derrick, some 70 feet in the air, maintaining pumps and motors up there, plus he was asked to perform all the skills and duties of a roustabout when needed.
A driller was in charge of operating the actual drill, responsible for keeping it in top condition, and for ensuring that actual drilling was taking place as much as possible. A toolpusher was typically the head worker on an oil rig. This tradesman primarily did paperwork consisting of preparing daily drilling reports which tracked the depth of the well, the progress made that day, the soil conditions encountered (including taking soil samples and conducting chemical analyses), the amounts and deposit-timing of any additives used that day, and other calculations such as mud weight, viscosity and column-stabilization measurements, which meant he was often present when asbestos additives were being dumped into the hopper so he could evaluate samples.
The mud engineer, an integral part of the process, was generally an employee of a drilling mud company, not of the rig or oil well owner. These salesmen would make the rounds of all oil rigs in the area which used their company’s brand of drilling mud. They tested the soil daily and prepared “recipes” for how much and what kind of additives should be mixed into the drilling mud to make it most efficient for drilling and stability, depending on soil and drilling conditions encountered each day. A mud engineer would often write down the mud “recipe” and then depart for the next rig on his route, but sometimes he stayed to help with maintenance and repair when the rig was shorthanded. And on offshore rigs, men worked on a rig for seven days at a time and then were transported off the rig for seven days of rest, so mud engineers became “part of the crew” for the seven days they spent on an offshore rig. It is therefore easy to see how these trades would have been exposed to asbestos fibers over the course of an oilfield workday, and how much asbestos was inhaled cumulatively by these workers over the course of a career in oilfield work.
While there has not been widespread use of asbestos in drilling mud since 1986, the diseases caused by asbestos exposure have a long latency period, meaning it can take decades to develop symptoms. If you or a loved one worked in an oilfield and have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, you may want to consider taking legal action. It is important that you seek legal counsel as soon as possible. Baron & Budd can help. Contact us online or call us at 855-280-7664 to learn more about your legal options.