Are Oil Refineries at a High Risk of Lightning Strikes?

by | Jun 6, 2023 | Offshore Accident, Oil and Gas Accident, Oil Refinery Injuries, Refinery Explosions, Workplace Accident, Workplace Safety

A recent fire at an oil refinery at Calcasieu Refining Company in Lake Charles, Louisiana is causing alarm for those who work at refineries or live nearby. While no one was injured in the fire, incidents like this one serve to remind all of us of the dangers of lightning strike injuries.

At Kherkher Garcia, our petrochemical injury attorneys routinely work with oil and gas and maritime workers along the Gulf Coast where lightning strikes are common during storm season. Oil refineries are vulnerable to lightning strikes for several reasons, which we will discuss below. We will also provide information for those who work or live near an oil refinery to help better understand these risks, how to prevent injuries, and how to get help when a lightning injury does occur.

Lightning Strike Incident Highlights Lightning Risks

The most recent lightning strike incident at an oil refinery is the one in Lake Charles. Authorities believe that lightning caused a fire in one of the naphtha tanks. No one was injured in the fire, but it did cause quite a hassle for individuals who work at the refinery, as well as those living nearby.

Authorities evacuated residents within 1.5 miles of the refinery, and issued as shelter-in-place order for those up to five miles. These orders were to protect nearby residents if the fire could not be contained, or if the contents of the tanks were to leak. The Calcasieu Refining Company refines products including propane, naphtha, kerosene, diesel fuel, and jet fuel.

Is Lightning a Hazard at or Near Oil Refineries?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, lightning strikes an oil refinery about once every two years. However, the frequency of lightning strikes can vary depending on the location of the refinery. For example, refineries in areas with high lightning activity, such as the Gulf Coast, are more likely to be struck by lightning than refineries in areas with low lightning activity, such as the Midwest.

Lightning strikes can cause a number of problems at oil refineries, including fires, explosions, and releases of hazardous materials. In some cases, lightning strikes have led to fatalities. In order to protect workers and the environment, oil refineries have a number of safety measures, such as lightning rods and fire suppression systems.

Here are some of the safety measures that oil refineries can implement in order to protect against lightning strikes:

  • Lightning Rods: Lightning rods are metal rods that are placed on the highest point of a refinery. Lightning rods attract lightning strikes and direct the electricity to the ground, where it is safely dispersed.
  • Fire Suppression Systems: Fire suppression systems can quickly extinguish fires that are caused by lightning strikes. They typically consist of water sprinklers, foam generators, and dry chemical extinguishers.
  • Evacuation Procedures: Oil refineries have evacuation procedures in place in case of a lightning strike. These procedures typically involve evacuating workers from the area of the strike and shutting down operations.

Despite safety measures, lightning strikes can still cause problems at oil refineries. It is important for workers and the public to be aware of the risks of lightning strikes and to take steps to protect themselves.

What are the Risks of Lightning Near Oil Refineries?

Oil refineries, due to their operations involving the processing and storage of flammable materials, can be susceptible to lightning risks. Lightning strikes can pose significant hazards to refineries, including the potential for fires, explosions, and equipment damage. Subsequently, there is a risk to personnel safety. Here are some key factors to consider regarding lightning risks at oil refineries:

Flammable Substances

Oil refineries handle large quantities of flammable substances such as crude oil, petroleum products, and various chemicals. These materials are highly combustible, and a lightning strike can ignite them, leading to fires or explosions.

Storage Tanks

Refineries often have storage tanks that hold significant volumes of flammable liquids. Lightning can directly strike these tanks or nearby structures, causing sparks or electrical discharge. This may result in ignition or damage to the tanks and subsequent release of hazardous materials.

Process Equipment

Oil refining involves complex processes with various types of equipment, including distillation columns, heat exchangers, reactors, and pipelines. Lightning strikes can induce power surges, electrical discharges, or electromagnetic interference that may damage the equipment. This can cause production disruptions or potential safety hazards.

Electrostatic Hazards

Lightning can create substantial electrostatic charges during its discharge. These charges can accumulate on equipment, storage tanks, or other conducting objects within the refinery. If not adequately grounded, these charges can cause static discharges. Static discharges can ignite flammable vapors or cause damage to sensitive electronic systems.

Secondary Effects

Lightning strikes can result in secondary effects, such as power surges or electrical disturbances in the refinery’s electrical systems. These disturbances can affect control systems, communication networks, and other critical infrastructure, leading to operational disruptions, safety risks, or equipment failures.

Personnel Safety

Refinery workers may be vulnerable to lightning risks while working in outdoor areas or near tall structures. Lightning poses a direct threat to personnel safety. Proper safety protocols, including lightning detection and warning systems, are essential to protect workers from potential harm.

What are the Most Common Injuries from Lightning Strikes?

Lightning strikes can cause a range of injuries, varying in severity depending on factors such as the intensity of the strike, the duration of exposure, and the individual’s proximity to the lightning. The most common injuries associated with lightning strikes include:

Electrical Injuries

When lightning strikes a person, it can cause electrical burns and damage to the nervous system. These injuries can lead to tissue damage, nerve dysfunction, and internal injuries. Electrical injuries can vary from minor burns to severe organ damage, cardiac arrest, or even death.

Thermal Injuries

Lightning generates intense heat, and individuals struck by lightning may experience thermal burns. These burns can occur at the points of contact with the lightning, such as where it enters and exits the body. Additionally, thermal burns may occur in areas where clothing or jewelry conduct the electricity. Lightning strikes also can cause fires, which can also cause thermal burns to those in the area.

Neurological Injuries

Lightning strikes can affect the central nervous system, leading to various neurological symptoms. These may include loss of consciousness, confusion, memory problems, dizziness, muscle weakness, seizures, and tingling or numbness in the extremities. These neurological effects can be temporary or long-lasting, depending on the severity of the strike.

Cardiac Injuries

Lightning can disrupt the normal electrical activity of the heart, potentially leading to cardiac rhythm disturbances, such as ventricular fibrillation or arrhythmias. Cardiac injuries are one of the most significant risks associated with lightning strikes. They can be fatal without prompt treatment with cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and defibrillation.

Auditory Injuries

The loud thunderclap accompanying lightning strikes can cause acoustic trauma. This can cause temporary or permanent hearing loss. This can occur even if the individual is not directly struck by lightning but is in close proximity to the strike.

Musculoskeletal Injuries

The force generated by a lightning strike can cause individuals to be thrown or knocked down. The force can result in fractures, dislocations, sprains, or other musculoskeletal injuries. Falls or impacts can also lead to head injuries or spinal cord injuries.

It is worth noting that while some lightning strike injuries may be immediately apparent, others can have delayed effects and may not manifest until hours, days, or even weeks after the incident. Therefore, individuals who have been struck by lightning should seek medical attention promptly, even if they initially appear to have no serious injuries.

How Can Oil Refineries Reduce the Risk of Lightning Strikes?

To mitigate lightning risks at oil refineries, several measures are typically implemented:

  • Lightning Protection Systems: Refineries often install lightning rods or air terminals on structures, tanks, and equipment to provide a path for lightning to safely discharge into the ground. This minimizes the risk of direct strikes.
  • Grounding and Bonding: Proper grounding and bonding of equipment, storage tanks, and other conductive elements within the refinery help dissipate electrostatic charges and prevent the accumulation of hazardous potentials.
  • Surge Protection Devices: Installing surge protection devices, such as lightning arresters or surge suppressors, can safeguard electrical systems from power surges.
  • Emergency Response Plans: Refineries should have emergency response plans in place to address incidents caused by lightning strikes. This should include fire suppression systems, evacuation procedures, and communication protocols.
  • Training and Awareness: Oil refinery leadership should conduct regular training programs to educate refinery personnel about lightning risks, safety procedures, and the appropriate actions to take during severe weather conditions.

Overall, by implementing comprehensive lightning protection measures and adhering to safety protocols, oil refineries can significantly reduce the risks associated with lightning strikes, safeguard personnel, protect critical infrastructure, and ensure continued safe operations.

What are My Rights after a Workplace Lightning Strike Injury?

The specific rights and legal protections you have may vary depending on your jurisdiction and the applicable laws in your country or state. It is always recommended to consult with an employment attorney or legal expert who can provide advice tailored to your situation. That being said, here are some general points to consider regarding workplace lightning injuries:

  • Medical Treatment: Following a workplace lightning injury, you have the right to receive appropriate medical treatment. Your employer may provide you with information about approved healthcare providers or may require you to seek treatment from a specific medical facility or physician.
  • Workers’ Compensation: Often, employees who sustain injuries in the workplace, including those caused by lightning strikes, qualify for workers’ compensation benefits. Workers’ compensation typically provides medical benefits, compensation for lost wages, and rehabilitation services. It is generally a “no-fault” system, meaning that you may be eligible for benefits regardless of who is at fault for the incident.
  • Disability and Accommodations: If your lightning strike injury results in a temporary or permanent disability, you may have rights under disability laws. These laws often require employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities to enable them to perform their job duties.
  • Non-Retaliation: It is generally illegal for employers to retaliate against employees who exercise their rights or file workers’ compensation claims following a workplace injury, including a lightning strike. If you experience any form of retaliation, such as termination, demotion, or harassment, you may have additional legal protections.
  • Legal Remedies: In some cases, depending on the circumstances surrounding the lightning strike and the resulting injuries, you may have the right to pursue legal action beyond workers’ compensation benefits. This could involve filing a personal injury lawsuit against a third party, such as a contractor, if their negligence contributed to the incident.

How Can an Attorney Help Me after an Oil Refinery Injury?

If you are injured while working in an oil refinery, contacting an attorney can help you in many ways. Above all, a skilled attorney can help you understand and protect your legal rights. Here are several ways the injury attorneys at Kherkher Garcia can help you:

  • Legal Assessment: An attorney will evaluate the details of your case, including the circumstances of the accident, the extent of your injuries, and the potential liability of the parties involved. They will assess the strength of your case and determine the legal options available to you.
  • Gathering Evidence: Attorneys have the knowledge and resources to conduct a thorough investigation. They can gather evidence such as accident reports, witness statements, photographs, surveillance footage, and any other relevant documentation to support your claim.
  • Determining Liability: In oil refinery accidents, there can be multiple parties potentially responsible for your injuries, including the refinery operator, contractors, equipment manufacturers, or other third parties. An attorney can identify and determine liability by analyzing factors such as negligence, regulatory compliance, safety protocols, and contractual relationships.
  • Pursuing Legal Action: If a fair settlement cannot be reached through negotiation, an attorney can initiate legal proceedings on your behalf. They will prepare the necessary legal documents, file your lawsuit within the applicable statute of limitations, and guide you through the litigation process.
  • Maximizing Compensation: Experienced attorneys understand the types of damages you may be entitled to, including medical expenses, rehabilitation costs, lost wages, pain and suffering, disability, and future medical needs. They will work to build a strong case to maximize your potential compensation.

Speak with a Texas Petrochemical Injury Attorney

If you are battling a lightning-related injury at or near an oil refinery, the attorneys at Kherkher Garcia can help you. We have been helping injury victims for more than three decades get compensation for injuries caused by negligence, inadequate training, and improper safety procedures.

Find out how we can help you by contacting us on our website, or by calling us at 713-333-1030.

Schedule a free Consultation

Steve Kherkher

Steve Kherkher

Founding Partner and Trial Lawyer

This article was written and reviewed by Injury Trial Lawyer and Founding Firm Partner Steve Kherkher. Steve has been a practicing injury lawyer for more than 30 years. He has won $300 Million+ in Settlements and Verdicts for his clients. He is a force to be reckoned with in the courtroom and the trial lawyer you want on your side if you or a loved one have been catastrophically injured.

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