The investigation into what caused the Wynnewood Refinery explosion could take months. Tragedies like this one serve as a harsh reminder of the dangers of working in the oil and gas industry. Refinery explosions can cause massive damage resulting in numerous injuries and loss of life.
At Kherkher Garcia, LLP, our petrochemical injury lawyers know well how devastating refinery explosions can be. We have worked with many clients who have been injured in explosions or resulting fires. Our mission is to help these workers and their families obtain compensation for their injuries and related losses. Often, refinery explosions and fires are preventable, and we believe that those injured deserve justice.
The Dangers of Oil and Gas Refining
The Wynnewood Refinery is a small oil and gasoline refinery located in south-central Oklahoma. Despite being a relatively small refinery compared to some of the massive refineries in the Gulf Coast states, workers in Wynnewood face many of the same hazards.
Oil and gas refining, like any industrial process, has certain dangers and associated risks. Here are some potential dangers:
Fire and Explosions
Gasoline is highly flammable and volatile. During the refining process, there is a risk of fires and explosions if proper safety measures are not in place. Accidental ignition of gasoline vapors can lead to catastrophic incidents.
Health risks to Workers
Refinery workers may face occupational hazards such as exposure to toxic fumes, chemical burns, physical injuries, and noise pollution. Prolonged exposure to certain chemicals or unsafe working conditions can lead to chronic health problems, including respiratory issues, skin disorders, or increased risk of certain cancers.
Refining involves the use of various chemicals and solvents, including corrosive acids, caustic substances, and toxic compounds. Exposure to these chemicals can result in burns, skin irritation, respiratory problems, or long-term health effects if safety precautions are not followed.
Refineries can release pollutants into the environment. If not properly controlled, emissions from refining processes can contribute to air pollution, including the release of greenhouse gases, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and hazardous air pollutants (HAPs). Accidental spills or leaks of gasoline or other petroleum products can also lead to soil and water contamination, harming ecosystems and wildlife.
Transporting large quantities of gasoline and other petroleum products via pipelines, tankers, or trucks involves its own set of risks. Accidents during transportation, such as spills, leaks, or collisions, can result in fires, explosions, and environmental damage, as well as pose risks to human life and property.
Process Upsets and Equipment Failures
Refinery operations are complex, involving numerous mechanical systems and equipment. Equipment failures, process upsets, or human errors can lead to unplanned shutdowns, release of hazardous substances, or other accidents that jeopardize safety and disrupt operations.
What are Some Common Causes of Refinery Explosions?
There are many causes of oil and gas refinery explosions. Some causes seem to be more common than others, however, such as human error or poor safety features. At Kherkher Garcia, we have noted the following causes to be among the most common:
- Human Error: This is the most common cause of refinery explosions, and can include things like:
- Careless cigarette smoking
- Improper maintenance of equipment
- Shortcuts in safety procedures
- Inadequate training of workers
- Defective Equipment: Equipment malfunctions can be caused by defects or negligence, and can lead to explosions if flammable materials are present.
- ‘Dirty’ Chemicals: Refineries use volatile chemicals to purify extracted oil. These chemicals must be properly stored and handled. They can be very dangerous if they come into contact with heat, sparks, or other ignition sources.
- Well Blowouts: An oil well blowout refers to the uncontrolled release of crude oil from an oil well. This can happen when the pressure inside the well becomes too great, and can lead to explosions if there are flammable materials present.
- Unseen Corrosion: Corrosion can weaken equipment over time, making it more likely to malfunction and cause an explosion.
- Poor Safety Procedures: Refineries must have strict safety procedures in place to prevent explosions. If these procedures are not followed, it can increase the risk of an explosion.
It is important to note that these are just some of the most common causes of oil and gas refinery explosions. There are many other factors that can contribute to an explosion, and it is often difficult to determine the exact cause. Investigations to find the cause of an explosion often take months or sometimes years to complete.
Types of Injuries Caused by Refinery Explosions
Explosions can cause a wide range of injuries, depending on the nature and intensity of the explosion, as well as the proximity of individuals to the blast. Here are some common injuries caused by explosions:
The primary cause of injuries in an explosion is the blast wave. It is a wave of high-pressure air that spreads rapidly from the site of the explosion. Blast injuries can result from the direct impact of the blast wave on the body or through indirect mechanisms such as being thrown against objects or collapsing structures. Blast injuries can include:
- Primary Blast Injuries: These are caused by the direct effect of the blast wave on the body. They primarily affect gas-filled organs, such as the lungs, intestines, and ears. Injuries can include lung damage, gastrointestinal injuries, ruptured eardrums, or damage to other organs.
- Secondary Blast Injuries: Occur when individuals are struck by flying debris, fragments, or objects propelled by the blast. They can cause lacerations, puncture wounds, fractures, or traumatic amputations.
- Tertiary Blast Injuries: These occur when individuals are thrown or propelled by the force of the blast, impacting other objects or surfaces. This can result in blunt trauma injuries, fractures, head injuries, or spinal injuries.
- Quaternary Blast Injuries: Encompass a range of other injuries that may occur indirectly due to the explosion, such as burns, crush injuries, inhalation of toxic gases or smoke, or psychological trauma.
Explosions generate intense heat and flames, leading to thermal injuries. These injuries can result in burns of varying degrees, including first-degree, second-degree, or third-degree burns. Burns can affect the skin, underlying tissues, and respiratory system if hot gases or smoke are inhaled.
Shrapnel refers to fragments or pieces of objects that are propelled by the explosion. Injuries due to shrapnel can include penetrating wounds, deep lacerations, fractures, and internal organ damage.
Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs)
Explosions can cause TBIs due to the forceful impact on the head or when individuals are thrown against hard surfaces. TBIs can range from mild concussions to severe brain injuries, potentially leading to long-term cognitive, physical, or psychological impairments.
Hearing and Vision Loss
The intense pressure generated by explosions can cause severe damage to the ears, resulting in hearing loss or permanent deafness. Additionally, the bright flash of light during explosions can cause temporary or permanent vision loss or eye injuries.
Experiencing or witnessing an explosion can lead to psychological trauma, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions.
The severity and type of injuries that occur during an explosion can vary depending on factors such as proximity, protective barriers, and individual circumstances. Prompt medical attention and appropriate trauma care are crucial for treating blast injuries and minimizing long-term complications.
Types of Injuries Caused by Fires
Explosions often result in fires, and both events can be catastrophic. Injuries due to a fire can vary from those caused by an explosion. There are many different types of fire injuries, but some of the most common include:
- Burns: Burns are the most common type of fire injury, and can range in severity from minor to life-threatening. These injuries can be caused by direct contact with flames, hot objects, or hot gases.
- Smoke Inhalation: Smoke inhalation is another common type of fire injury. Inhaling smoke can cause respiratory problems, including coughing, wheezing, and difficulty breathing. In severe cases, smoke inhalation can lead to death.
- Injuries from Falling Debris: Fires can cause debris to fall, which can injure people who are nearby. Debris can include bricks, concrete, glass, and other objects.
- Hearing Loss: Fires can cause hearing loss, either from the noise of the fire itself or from the sound of explosions.
- Psychological Trauma: Fires can cause psychological trauma, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD can cause symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, and anxiety.
How to Prevent Refinery Explosions and Fires
The most tragic element of incidents like the Wynnewood explosion is the fact that most similar incidents are preventable. Preventing refinery explosions and fires requires a comprehensive approach that involves various safety measures and protocols. When implemented and managed effectively, these measures and protocols can be very effective at preventing incidents, injuries, and loss of life.
Here are some key strategies that oil and gas refinery leadership can implement to prevent such incidents:
Implement Rigorous Safety Standards
Refineries should adhere to stringent safety standards, regulations, and guidelines set forth by government agencies and industry organizations. These standards cover various aspects such as design, construction, maintenance, and operation of the facility.
Conduct Regular Inspections and Maintenance
Regular inspections of equipment, machinery, and infrastructure are vital to identify potential hazards, detect equipment malfunctions, and ensure compliance with safety regulations. Implementing a proactive maintenance program helps prevent equipment failures and minimizes the risk of incidents.
Ensure Proper Process and Equipment Design
Employing proper process design and engineering controls is crucial. This includes implementing safety systems, employing redundant and fail-safe mechanisms, and using appropriate materials and equipment that can withstand the demands of the refining processes.
Provide Comprehensive Training
Thorough training programs should be in place for refinery personnel to ensure they are knowledgeable about safety protocols, hazard identification, emergency response procedures, and the proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE). Employees should be regularly trained and updated on safety practices.
Promote a Safety Culture
Encourage a strong safety culture within the refinery, where all employees prioritize safety and actively participate in identifying and reporting potential hazards. Regular safety meetings, awareness campaigns, and continuous improvement initiatives can contribute to a safety-focused environment.
Implement Effective Process Controls
Employ advanced process control systems and monitoring technologies to detect abnormalities, prevent overpressure situations, and automatically shut down processes if necessary. These systems can help prevent incidents by maintaining safe operating conditions.
Conduct Hazard Assessments
Perform thorough hazard assessments, including hazard identification, to identify potential risks associated with various refinery processes. This helps in implementing appropriate safety measures and mitigating identified hazards.
Establish Emergency Response Plans
Develop comprehensive emergency response plans that outline procedures for evacuation, firefighting, containment of spills, and communication protocols. Conduct drills and exercises regularly to ensure that personnel are well-prepared to respond effectively in case of an incident.
Control Ignition Sources
Implement strict controls and procedures to minimize ignition sources, such as maintaining proper grounding and bonding practices, controlling static electricity, and ensuring the proper maintenance of electrical systems and equipment.
Promote Effective Communication
Foster effective communication channels within the refinery to ensure that safety concerns, incidents, and near misses are reported promptly and acted upon. Encourage a reporting culture that emphasizes the importance of learning from incidents and implementing preventive measures.
What to Do After a Refinery Explosion
If you have injuries due to a refinery explosion, your life has, no doubt, been turned upside down. There are inherent dangers in working in the oil and gas industry. However, companies can reduce the risk of serious injuries or deaths by following proper procedures and safety regulations. Unfortunately, many companies and refinery leaders do not follow regulations and protocols as they should.
If you are injured and would like learn more about your legal rights and possible options for pursuing compensation, Kherkher Garcia can help. Our team has more than 30 years of experience helping clients recover compensation in oil and gas, maritime, and other catastrophic incidents. The best place to start is consulting with one of our attorneys to see how we can help you.
Get started learning more by contacting us for a 100% free consultation. You can call us at 713-333-1030 to start right away.