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Which workers risk exposure to hydrogen sulfide?

If inhaled in high enough concentrations for too long, hydrogen sulfide, sometimes called H2S gas, can be deadly. Although industries have exposure limits put in place by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), it is up to each individual employer to maintain the monitoring equipment and enforce proper safety protocols.

Like any occupation, productivity can often out-rank safety. When that happens, lives could be at risk.

Industries with exposure

According to OSHA hydrogen sulfide, produced naturally from decaying organic matter, is found most commonly in these industries:

  • Petroleum production and refining
  • Sewer and wastewater treatment
  • Mining
  • Agricultural silos and pits
  • Pulp and paper processing
  • Textile manufacturing
  • Food processing
  • Hot asphalt paving

The list is certainly not comprehensive. If you have questions about exposure in your industry, it is important that you speak to a safety official such as an OSHA representative.

Hydrogen sulfide: What you need to know

Hydrogen sulfide is a gas, produced during the microbial breakdown of organic matter. The organic matter in question could be crude oil, natural gas, or processed waste/wastewater. For those working in the industries with most exposure, know that there should be strict safety protocols in place, as well as functioning detectors.

Unlike carbon monoxide, another deadly gas, hydrogen sulfide is detectable by a rotten egg smell. What is alarming about hydrogen sulfide is that continued exposure at low-levels, or sudden exposure at a high-level, will deaden a person's sense of smell. For that reason, it is a common misconception that detection is possible without use of equipment.

Warning symptoms

The amount of damage done by hydrogen sulfide will depend greatly on length of exposure, at what concentration level and how quickly they received proper care. Here are some of the common symptoms, according to OSHA to watch for that may indicate early exposure:

  • Rotten egg smell
  • Odor described as sweet
  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Watery eyes
  • Fatigue
  • Sleep trouble
  • Respiratory irritation
  • Loss of appetite
  • Irritability
  • Memory loss
  • Dizziness

As a worker, you have an inalienable right to safe working conditions. If you suspect that your employer is minimizing the need to monitor for hydrogen sulfide, or making other decisions that risk your safety, it is imperative that you take immediate action. They cannot punish you for demanding a safe work environment.

If you have suffered harm as the result of inhaling H2S, you may  be eligible for workers' compensation benefits. Speak with an attorney if you have questions about a claim.

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