'Fracking' and worker safety
U.S. oil boom is in full swing, as are questions about hazards
- OSHA and NIOSH have issued a hazard alert regarding respirable silica hazards during fracking operations, and additional hazard bulletins could be forthcoming.
- Truck traffic poses a significant safety concern to workers, especially because fracking operations sometimes take place during the middle of the night.
- Fracking operations tend to vary widely from site to site, which can make it difficult for researchers and regulators to track worker safety and health.
As fresh oil has flowed, so have new jobs.
Hydraulic fracturing – or “fracking,” as it is often referred to – is the process of drilling deep beneath the earth’s surface to crack, or fracture, rock formations to access oil and natural gas deposits. The process is not new, but advancements in technology spurred a recent boom and vaulted the United States to No. 1 status among the world’s oil and gas producers.
Workers continue to flock to oil-rich states such as North Dakota, where oil and gas production on the Bakken shale formation has helped drive down the unemployment rate to 2.8 percent – the lowest in the United States.
Wherever fracking exists, so too does a need for safety.
According to OSHA, 823 workers in the oil and gas extraction industry were killed on the job from 2003 to 2010. The fatality rate was about 7 times greater than for all other industries, and hazards ranged from chemical exposures to vehicle crashes.
Some questions about fracking – such as the long-term health effects of silica exposure on workers – might not be fully answered for decades. But OSHA and NIOSH have stepped forward to provide hazard alerts and possible solutions, and those who work in the industry say the emphasis on safety and health is greater than ever.
In the meantime, new supplies of oil and natural gas continue to flow, satisfying a public that is hungry for both.
“We’re likely to drill it all,” said Dr. Bernard Goldstein, an environmental toxicologist and the former dean of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. “It’s just a question of when and how fast we’re going to do it.”
On the job
Since 2008, Dan Doyle has served as president and owner of Reliance Well Services, a hydraulic fracturing company based in Erie, PA. About 15 employees work at Reliance, whose reach spans more than 20 counties in western Pennsylvania and New York.
Geography often dictates the type of fracking that takes place. In the Appalachian Basin, where Doyle works, employees frack what are called conventional wells, drilling vertically into sandstone. Elsewhere, such as in North Dakota, workers drill horizontally into shale.
Both methods require plenty of heavy equipment and careful planning for an effective job. Depending on the site, sedimentary rock layers can be tight, which means that oil and gas does not flow easily, so companies pump in “fracking fluid” to help extract the resources. Many companies do not reveal the combination of water and chemicals used in their fracking fluid, which has led to questions about how safe it is for workers and nearby residents.
The process is complex, but the essence of worker safety remains simple, Doyle said.
“The best way to keep a worker safe is to forecast and look things over and try to anticipate, and then design a safety program around that,” Doyle said. “It’s more than just buying the [flame-resistant clothing] and steel toes and hard hats. It’s trying to identify potential issues, and that comes from being onsite and learning what to look out for.”
What does he look out for?
“Truck traffic,” Doyle said. “We set up in the middle of the night sometimes. Almost every one of our setups is in the dark. So we require that everyone carries a flashlight, anyone backing a truck in has a flashlight, everybody has to wear their high-visibility ‘FRs’ when they are setting up. Keeping people out of the way, watching for pinch points – that’s one of the biggest things.”
Other factors include learning to recognize fluids that are under pressure versus fluids that are non-pressurized. Reliance uses third-party rigs on its jobsites, which means workers must constantly be aware of what the rig operators are doing and when to stay away.
“Communication, really, is primary,” Doyle said.
At Reliance, Doyle requires his workers to read a company-produced book about safety and complete extensive onsite training. “The awareness for the environment, the awareness for safety – those two have far outpaced the technological changes, which have been enormous,” Doyle said. “Really, the big, big changes have been in safety and environmental.”
In a rapidly growing industry, OSHA and NIOSH have tried to keep pace by identifying worker safety and health hazards.
Oil and gas workers could be subject to many dangerous conditions, according to OSHA, including:
- Vehicle crashes
- Struck-by/caught-in/caught-between hazards
- Explosions and fires
- Confined spaces
- Chemical exposures
NIOSH recently conducted field studies that identified overexposure to airborne silica as a worker health hazard. Researchers collected 116 full-shift air samples at fracking sites in Arkansas, Colorado, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Texas. Of the samples, 79 percent had silica exposures greater than NIOSH’s recommended level of 0.05 milligrams per cubic meter.
The agency also delved into other possible risks during flowback operations – when process fluids are collected on the surface after fracking – and found that workers gauging tanks could be exposed to higher-than-recommended levels of benzene, a known carcinogen. Fifteen of 17 samples exceeded NIOSH’s recommended exposure limit.
Keith Wrightson serves as worker safety and health advocate for Public Citizen, a Washington-based advocacy group that has called for an end to fracking. He said it concerns him that companies do not have to specify which chemicals they use in their fracking fluids, and it upsets him even more that crystalline silica – a known hazard – is prevalent.
“Over the last 10 years, the oil and gas and fracking industries have begun to expand, so now we can make the assumption or the takeaway that exposure to silica is also occurring at the same rate,” Wrightson said. “As more and more states allow fracking operations, more and more people are going to be exposed to the silica sand.”
The effects of that exposure could be stark, Wrightson said. He has pushed for OSHA to update its hazard alert on silica and its effects on the fracking industry.
“It’s granular sand,” Wrightson said. “It gets stuck in your lungs. So once it’s down there, it’s down there. It doesn’t go anywhere. … And, over time, that starts to rip and tear inside of your lungs, and you develop silicosis.”
In the short term, OSHA and NIOSH recommend protecting workers from silica exposure by collecting respirable dust samples, applying water to roads and around the well site to reduce dust, limiting the number of workers and time spent by workers in areas where dust and silica levels might be high, providing respiratory protection when necessary, and several other measures.
In the long term, both agencies have teamed with industry trade associations, companies and experts on a Respirable Silica Focus Group to help determine lasting solutions. In addition, NIOSH is designing conceptual engineering controls and searching for industry partners to help test those controls, as well as partners to research other chemical hazards.
Answers can be tough to come by because fracking sites can vary markedly from one site to the next, even in the same geographic region, Goldstein said.
“It’s really hard to know what’s going on when these are individual small sites,” Goldstein said. “Now, you may have a thousand or a couple of thousand or 10,000 individual small sites, so it’s a big industry. But it’s not like the big industry is a major refinery that has 4,000 or 5,000 workers and has all of the oversight that you would expect there.”
Meanwhile, fracking continues to take place at a furious pace.
Goldstein questioned the speed of the process for a finite supply of oil. He said waiting for further research and clearer answers could keep workers safer in the long run.
“My major issue is, there’s only 20 or 30 or 40 years, depending on who you believe, of this stuff available,” Goldstein said. “Are we really better off rushing ahead now? Are we better off doing it from this year for the next 30 years, or doing it five years from now for the 30 years beyond that? We just haven’t looked at that. We don’t look at these things.”