Call for screenings of oil rig workers

The asbestos-related cancer death of a former oil rig worker should be highlighted in the hope those who did similar work are identified and screened.

Cork City coroner Philip Comyn backed a jury’s recommendation yesterday that the case be brought to the attention of the authorities after they returned a verdict of death due to occupational disease.

An inquest was told James O’Brien, 64, from Limerick, a non-smoker, died at Cork University Hospital (CUH) on June 6, 2016, just months after he was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma — a rare form of cancer of the lining of the abdomen.

Mesothelioma normally affects the lungs as a result of inhalation of asbestos dust or fibres. But the inquest into Mr O’Brien’s death was told he was exposed to asbestos and other hazardous materials during his time as a roustabout, or general labourer, on oil rigs off Ireland in the 1980s.

Thomas Neville, who worked with Mr O’Brien on some of the first rigs to drill on the Porcupine Bank off the west coast during the 1980s, said rig workers were supplied with standard safety equipment, including basic breathing masks.

He said roustabouts faced many hazards, including spray-painting in confined spaces and stripping old lining or cladding from pipes which crumble to the touch.

Their work in the rig’s sack room, where they cut open bags of powdered chemicals which were mixed with water to make drill-mud, an insulation material used to cool the rig’s drill bit, was particularly hazardous, he said.

During intense drilling operations, he said, roustabouts could spend up to 12 hours in the sack room. They would be covered in dust and often had to eat there during long shifts. “It was not a healthy situation,” he said.

“I’d deliver the food to them sometimes, and would get out fairly lively. I’d go in, and try to get out again as fast I as could. The further in you went, the more toxic it got. The fumes were nauseating. What they were breathing, they were eating as well.”

Mr O’Brien worked on the rigs until 1997 and later in construction.

Dr Margot Bolster, the assistant State pathologist, said it can take up to 25 years for asbestos-related cancer to manifest. She said the cause of death was occupational disease as a result of past exposure and ingestion of asbestos in the workplace.

The family’s solicitor, Raymond Bradley, asked the jury to consider a recommendation that would urge the Department of Jobs to conduct a review of Irish people who worked in the oil rig industry and assess their exposure to asbestos.

He said there are many people alive today who may be at risk and it would be better for them to avail of early medical intervention.


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