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Are We Learning from Our Mistakes?


By Lee Wilson

Health and safety in the corrosion-control industry has always been a major priority for me. I have personally represented some of the world’s largest oil and gas companies, working on corrosion control and mitigation on some of the world’s largest petrochemical, LNG, FPSO and pipeline projects. Safety has been a major focus for me in order to ensure that the projects comply with local and global HSE legislation and regulation. It is imperative that the health and safety of employees is of primary importance and all health, safety and welfare factors are identified and subsequent control measures implemented in order to eliminate hazards and potential injuries and fatalities. Ignorance is not an excuse.

One factor that drives my personal focus on is of a personal nature. My father, Shaun Wilson, was a well-known abrasive blaster and industrial paint sprayer who passed away from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease on Jan. 6, 2015. COPD is a major cause of disability and death; thousands of people die each year from work-related lung diseases, in many cases due to exposures that took place many years before. COPD describes a number of breathing problems related to damage to the breathing tubes and air sacs within the lung. Breathing in certain dusts, fumes, chemicals or gases in the workplace can cause serious long-term lung damage.

Ship painting
© / convertor

We are still seeing regular accidents due to known hazards associated with the industry. Why is this?

My father was 58 when he passed away. He worked for many contractors in his career, particularly on large oil and gas and marine projects in North East England during the 1970s and 1980s, typically working in extremely confined spaces without the awareness, training, ventilation or adequate PPE and RPE available today. The materials used then included abrasives which were also unregulated and contained numerous harmful chemicals such as traces of arsenic and other toxic substances. The paint materials applied included the likes of zinc chromates, calcium plumbates and red lead, which are now all banned in the U.K. due their toxicity and health-related concerns.

As a young apprentice in the shipyards of the River Tyne in Northern England, I used to watch blissfully unaware industrial blasters and painters carrying out work in extremely unsafe conditions using what in the long run have proven to be deadly materials. The death of my father at the age of 58 from an industrial-related disease is just one tragic example of the many shipyard workers from his era whom have also passed away or are suffering from respiratory industrial disease.

Why Focus on Safety?

The majority of the safety hazards present in industrial painting are well known within the industry for an unfortunate reason: historical data and past incidents, including in some cases serious injury and death. While the hazards in corrosion control are well established, each individual project differs, so it is essential to identify all risks during a risk assessment and either eliminate the risk/hazard entirely or implement control measures to safeguard employees wherever necessary.

There are three major reasons for preventing accidents in the workplace:

  • Moral: Injury accidents result in a great deal of pain and suffering for all those affected. Clearly we must all do what we can to avoid this.
  • Legal: It is a legal requirement in most countries to safeguard the health and safety of employees and others that might be affected by the organisations operations.
  • Financial: Accidents at work cost a great deal of money, especially when we add in damage accidents (particularly when they interrupt production, downgrade the quality of our products or impair the environment). Costs can be enormous and perhaps already are many times larger than most individuals consider.

With that said, there is no cost on a human life, and all measures and precautions need to be taken in order to ensure the health, safety and welfare of our industry

Hazards in Corrosion Control

One of the problems faced by the industry is that there are many different aspects to corrosion control! For example: Pre-treatment of the steel and surface preparation prior to coating application may include many different risks for each individual stage of project execution. Regardless, the hazards have to be identified, including factors such as:

  • Working at height;
  • Working with pressures (in waterjetting and abrasive blasting);
  • Working with hazardous materials (abrasives);
  • Working with chemicals (acid/solvent cleaning);
  • Working with flammable materials;
  • Working in an environment with high dust levels, amid dust that may contain respirable crystalline silica;
  • Working on material that may contain other hazardous substances, e.g., lead; and
  • Skin contact with dusts and prolonged or frequent contact with water, which may cause dermatitis.

These are just a few examples of hazards; there are many more depending upon the actual project. However, a good standard of control is needed because the risk to health is clearly extremely high.

Cases in Point

The health and safety risks within our industry are very real. On Dec. 11, 2017, the Edmonton Journal reported that “an industrial painter has died in hospital after suffering serious injuries when he was knocked from the top of a sandblasting hopper.”

Although occupational safety authorities are still investigating this particular tragic accident, the Journal reported that the victim was working alone and “was opening the top hatch of the sandblasting hopper, and apparently there was still some trapped pressure in the container, so when he opened the hatch the pressure caused him to fall off of the hopper.” 

This is not an isolated case; there are many other reported cases of negligence and disregard for safety practices and protocols by employers resulting in tragic consequences for employees.

Abrasive blasting
© /  ZooCat

Pre-treatment of the steel and surface preparation prior to coating application may include many different risks for each individual stage of project execution.

On the Jan. 2, 2013, PaintSquare Daily News reported: “A fatal labeling error that led an abrasive blaster to hook his supplied-air hood to nitrogen gas rather than oxygen will cost a West Virginia employer $42,700 in federal health and safety fines.”

And let us not forget the Xcel Energy case in Denver, where five members of a blasting and painting crew working in a tunnel in October 2007 became trapped in a confined space when a static spark ignited the fumes that had built up inside of the tunnel, blocking the painters’ escape route.

And this is a global problem, with breaches of safety regulations a common practice. On Aug. 22, 2017, PSDN reported:

Four men were killed in an explosion while performing painting work at a shipyard in the South Gyeongsang Province of South Korea on Sunday (Aug. 20).

Korea Times reported that, according to firefighters responding to the scene, the accident occurred inside a 74,000-ton oil tanker at 11:37 a.m. The tanker, which was under construction, was located at an STX Offshore and Shipbuilding’s Shipyard in Jinhae, an industrial hub along the southeastern coast of the country.

According to the Korea Times, those involved in the incident were ages 33, 45, 52 and 53. At the time of the explosion, the four men were painting inside the 39-foot-deep tanker, which was reportedly scheduled to be delivered to a Greek shipping company in October.

Are we learning from our mistakes? I am of the opinion that we are not. Despite the best of efforts of the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.K.’s Health and Safety Executive, both of which have taken major steps to fine and prosecute companies found in breach of health and safety regulations, employers still flout the rules and endanger the lives of employees.

I have to add that in almost all of the cases listed above—and there are unfortunately many more—I believe the tragedies could have been prevented, as the hazards were clearly evident in all cases.

Walnut Blasting Tragedy

Another tragic safety case that has resulted in major discussions from a safety aspect is the recent tragic case of Justin Mathews of Edmonton, who died of anaphylactic shock after being exposed to a walnut-based product being used for sandblasting in the same building where he was testing air quality. According to a December article from PaintSquare:

Mathews’ reaction was likely the result of a convergence of factors, according to experts. While most people with allergies would not have a reaction from simply breathing the air around nuts, allergist Antony Ham Pong told Allergic Living that the superfine particles created during the blasting process were likely respirable, leading to the potential for airborne exposure.

Alberta OSH's Trent Bancarz said he's never heard of an incident like this during his career, and was not aware of allergy concerns around walnut blast media prior to Mathews' death.

Walnut blasting media is made from shells, which in and of themselves would not be allergens if cleaned, Ham Pong told the publication. But shells converted to abrasive media are likely to be contaminated with walnut oil or pieces of walnut, which would cause a reaction.

Now here is my opinion on the subject. We have to remember that the use of walnut shell products is on the rise as a safer and more sustainable blasting media, in lieu of more hazardous abrasives such as silica sand. However, the risk of allergic reaction to nuts is not a new concept. It is well known that walnut shells contain traces of walnut oils and walnut particles, and this in turn creates airborne contaminants during the blasting process, with the potential for inhalation if unprotected.

This is a hazard and a risk, so why was this not identified and the subsequent control measures put in place? As far as I am aware there have never been any restrictions upon the use of walnut shells despite these known hazards.

Simply put, an employer has to ensure that all precautions are taken in order to safeguard the health of their employees.

Have We Learned from Our Mistakes?

There have been significant changes over the decades, primarily due to regulation boards such as the HSE, EPA and OSHA driving awareness and implementing prosecutions for safety breaches. But we are still seeing regular accidents due to known hazards associated with the industry. I have to ask, why is this, when the hazards associated with our industry are well highlighted with numerous codes of practices and guidance notes produced by the HSE and OSHA? Until we see more and more contractors following these laws, rules, practices and guidelines and the implementation of structured awareness and safety supervision implemented at an early stage within projects, I am afraid to say that we will continue to see unfortunate and tragic occurrences within the industry.


Lee Wilson

Lee Wilson, CEng, FICorr, is a NACE Level 3-certified CIP Instructor, NACE Corrosion Specialist, NACE Protective Coating Specialist and Senior Corrosion Technologist, as well as an ICorr Level 3 Painting Inspector and Level 2 Insulation Inspector. The author of the best-selling Paint Inspector’s Field Guide, Lee was named one of JPCL Top Thinkers: The Clive Hare Honors in 2012. Contact Lee.



Tagged categories: Accidents; Air quality; Health and safety; Personal protective equipment; Protective clothing; Safety equipment

Comment from Tony John, (2/22/2018, 5:21 AM)

Good read Lee, as the industry as a whole, is massive globally we tend to forget or not hear of the vast majority of accidents or fatalities, although times have changed over the years and gradually it has become more safer and training and awareness has vastly improved you only have to see various posts on Linked In to fully appreciate that a lot still needs to be done to encourage the operator to make his/her safety and well being a priority

Comment from Lee Wilson, (2/22/2018, 9:24 AM)

Totally agree Tony John and well said!

Comment from glenn holmstrom, (2/22/2018, 9:55 AM)

Excellent read. We have lost family members and good friends due to exposure to a variety of different hazardous substances and working conditions over the years. Although health and safety is miles ahead of where we used to be it is still not where desired. We still see a lot of the same mistakes being made today. Even with greater measures put in place by authorities, companies and HSE teams it is down to individuals to adhere to them.

Comment from Lee Wilson, (2/22/2018, 10:17 AM)

Excellent Comments Glen as we have both seen first hand the consequences of industrial related disease. Yes there have been significant advancements within the industry however many countrys were mass fabrication is now used by the oil majors are still unregulated! Again great comments my friend!

Comment from Michael Halliwell, (2/26/2018, 11:38 AM)

Lee, great article and you are quite correct...even though we've come a long way, the past can still haunt the present and future. Hopefully we are learning from our mistakes, but it seems like that is not always the case. I have witnessed far too many people (both on job sites and in comments here at PaintSquare News) who "pooh-pooh" the dangers associated with asbestos (first example that came to mind), even though it remains the #1 killer via occupational disease in Alberta (where I am) and numerous other jurisdictions.

Comment from Lee Wilson, (2/27/2018, 8:32 AM)

Hi Michael brilliant comments and yet again unfortunately so true its clear that so many of us in the industry have seen the consequences first hand and many continue to do so unfortunately of occupational related diseases. You are correct there is still a very relaxed attitude to some safety critical elements within the industry it can't be denied as the evidence is there in abundance!

Comment from Simon Hope, (3/2/2018, 4:43 AM)

Well put together Lee, as you are aware, breathing air standards and their proper implementation are one of my hobby horses, I am fed up with the number of times I sit and lecture people on proper RPE and its use and controls, it seems to go in one ear and out the other. The problem is that we don't see instant results due to bad practices but insidious attacks as in the way your father died, very similar to the horrendous deaths that befall others working in similar industries where the exposure to the hazard was in certain instances was a badge of honour and machismo, oh how wrong these poor people were. Education is essential, and the sight of a pair of diseased lungs on a slab during a post mortem can certainly act a focus. You need to explain the long term damage and stop the 'it won't happen to me' attitude and beliefs. Keep banging the drum!! if we all do and save one person it will be worth it!

Comment from Hardshell FZE, (3/16/2018, 3:41 AM)

Safety is our own hands. We should learn from our mistakes and if we don't it will risk our lives. It is the critical topic and need attention of everybody. Great topic you have raised, it gives us a valid point to think. Safety should be must on priority.

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