Continuous wireless gas detection technology tracks exposure in real time and automatically logs data. (U.S. Department of Energy photo)

Keeping Communities and Workers Safe From Benzene

Wireless gas monitoring is flexible and provides more control—at a time when regulators are about to make sure you have such control.

On Dec. 29, 1998, everything changed for four-year-old Jarrett McElheney.

The toddler lived with his parents at the Oakwood Mobile Home Park in Athens, Georgia, across the street from Southeast Terminals, a tank farm for storage of petroleum products. When he showed signs of illness and sluggishness, his parents brought him to a pediatrician, who reported that his blood chemistry indicated leukemia.1

The physician noted that another toddler had contracted the disease and resided at an address very near to Jarret McElheney. Jarret's parents filed a lawsuit against Southeast Terminals' owners and, during the proceedings, the mobile home site was tested for benzene, a volatile liquid hydrocarbon present in coal tar and petroleum and known to be carcinogenic.

Lawyers on both sides debated the results. The lawsuit was eventually settled for an undisclosed amount, out of court. The family's pursuit of justice prevailed and fortunately for Jarret, his leukemia went into remission after treatment.

The incident demonstrates the growing public health concerns of benzene and the priority that regulators are giving to mandatory monitoring of the carcinogen near industrial facilities. Incidents such as this, however, also spotlight the utility of continuous fence line gas monitoring, as processing plant owners are faced with increased regulatory challenges.

The expectation of citizens such as the McElheney family is that facility owners must be more responsible and regulators need to step in, particularly at petroleum refineries where ambient benzene is prevalent at the fence line.

Mandatory Benzene Monitoring?
Exposure limits are changing. Benzene exposure limits set by OSHA have already tightened from past years and are likely to tighten further. In June 2014, California lowered its limit of long-term exposure level for benzene from 20 ppb to 1 ppb.2 With increased monitoring requirements, companies need to deploy technology they and their constituents can rely upon.

At present, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is proposing mandatory monitoring for the presence of benzene at petroleum refineries with equipment and systems that pose such risk.3 The agency proposes a requirement for passive sampling at various increments along the peripheral boundary, or fence line, of a refinery. This would apply to facilities with equipment where benzene exposure is likely. The number of sampling points depends on the shape and overall size of the property, and extra sampling locations would be required where a benzene emission source is closer to the fence line. Each sample would require 14 days of exposure to ambient air.

The samples required by EPA would be obtained through tube sampling. These require a small tube filled with an adsorbent material and a cover with small apertures to allow ambient air in at a fixed rate. This method is currently utilized by the European Union for benzene monitoring. EPA believes this sampling method is the most effective technique to monitor benzene concentrations that could adversely impact the surrounding environs and communities outside petroleum refineries. The agency is basing this on a year-long monitoring program at Flint Hills Resources' West Refinery3 in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 2009. The agency is driven to implement these regulations by the incidence of leukemia reported among those working or living near petroleum refineries in the presence of benzene. It stands to ensure the safety of those who reside outside the facility, as well as workers who are closest to it and who also are at risk.

Challenge Meets Opportunity
Worker exposure to benzene is ideally monitored by continuous wireless gas detection technology. It tracks exposure in real time and automatically logs data. This subsequently serves as an audit trail for discovery when latent lawsuits arrive, years after a worker retires. Without wireless technology for monitoring harmful substances, companies risk more than they realize: community challenge, fines, worker downtime, stakeholder mistrust, and their reputation.

Petroleum refineries are gearing up for the ramifications of the proposed requirement for benzene. Wireless monitoring is the key to staying in compliance, as well as ensuring safety for the surrounding community. And as a result of the proposed EPA regulations, there has been a flood of interest.

Wireless technology requires a mix of skill sets to use, and it is somewhat of a paradigm shift away from hard-wired monitoring and on-site monitoring with handheld devices. At present, many facilities understand the value of using wireless gas detection technology. It has become one of the most valuable ways to protect workers, the community, and to meet regulatory requirements.

Accommodating the need to align with regulatory compliance is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Refineries have irregular perimeters, different surroundings, sizes, and geographies. Wireless gas detection systems are easily configurable to fit the dimensions of the plant. They provide redundant backup and system re-routing and wireless alarms and man-down information in the event of an incident.

Some organizations capitalize on wireless gas-monitoring technology to detect dangerous gases at the fence line when circumstances dictate. For example, Western Refining in El Paso, Texas, recently installed fence line monitoring to monitor for lower explosive limit (LEL) of explosive gases. As a large facility with a great deal of linear periphery, they have an added challenge: a major highway that passes through the center of the site.

Western Refining must monitor gases to ensure they do not cross the highway, which could be hazardous because combustible gas could encounter hot automotive engines on the highway that runs through the site and initiate an explosion. Wireless fence line monitoring mitigates this risk.

Quantifying the Benefits
Wireless monitoring provides value not always seen at first glance. The total costs of installation and maintenance must also be considered. When they are, value becomes much more apparent.

OSHA states it perfectly: Businesses spend $170 billion a year as a result of occupational injuries and illnesses. Their bottom-line profit pays for this. Established safety and health management systems pay off by reducing such costs by 20 to 40 percent.4 This is precisely where a wireless system plays a big role.

In addition to cost savings and reliability, a wireless system allows flexibility in monitoring harmful substances. A wireless pick-up point may be moved to focus on a suspect area, where a hardwired system would not allow it. This is key for benzene detection because its source is not always definitive. Wireless is flexible and provides more control—at a time when regulators are about to make sure you have such control.

"Safe environments improve employee morale, which often leads to increased productivity and better service," OSHA states in online data and studies about the value that a worker safety program produces. "Lost productivity from injuries and illnesses cost companies $60 billion each year."5

Wireless fence line monitoring can help plants meet imminent EPA regulations, improve their safety record, and keep workers and community citizens safe and alive through real-time monitoring of the levels of hazardous gases and substances in and around the facility. This technology leads to increased productivity and better service.

Embracing Wireless Gas Detection for Fence Line Monitoring
Wireless gas-monitoring technology has been around for many years and has many merits. Its proven use makes wireless gas detection ideal for industrial leadership by companies that embrace it. Here are some important takeaways in using it to monitor and control benzene exposure:

  • Increased regulatory monitoring requirements for benzene illustrate the benefit of wireless fence line monitoring.
  • Wireless fence line monitoring pays huge dividends and prevents huge risks for industrial firms in today's global marketplace.
  • Workers and the community are at the bedrock of an industrial facility; wireless fence line monitoring preserves the trust and mitigates risk to stakeholders.
  • Advanced enterprise-wide wireless gas detection solutions can track and archive monitor and exposure data. Organizations can analyze the data to develop appropriate response and communication plans and mitigate future risk.

Look closely at wireless fence line monitoring and you’ll find a value equation attractive to your stakeholders.

1. Kristen Lombardi, The Guardian,, Dec. 8, 2014
2. Kristen Lombardi, The Guardian,, Dec. 8, 2014

This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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