Health Issues for Workers on the Frack Fields

Fracking is 8 times more dangerous than almost all other jobs in America.

Number of workers employed by the U.S. oil and gas extraction industry: 435,000

Deaths last year in the industry: 138

Trucking Accidents:

The no# 1 risk for death is truck accidents because of the heavy traffic around the frac sites and the long shifts that oil and gas field workers are routinely pressured into working by their employers; these shifts can last typically last up to 20 hours. The legal limit of work shifts for most commercial truckers is 14 hours. Of the 2,200 oil and gas industry trucks inspected from 2009 to February 2012 by state police in Pennsylvania, the epicenter of the fracking boom, 40% were in such poor condition they had to be taken off the road.

Respiratory Exposure to Silica Sand:

Out of 11% of fracking sites that were inspected by National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recently, where they collected air samples to evaluate worker exposure to crystalline silica, which is present in the “frac sand”, used in the natural gas extraction process, and which causes silicosis, an incurable lung disease 100% were found to have exposure to respirable crystalline silica that exceeded occupational health limits.

Frac sand is 100% crystalline silica and up to 4 million pounds of frac sand are used to frack a single well. Why is silica a concern for workers during hydraulic fracturing?

Hydraulic fracturing sand contains up to 99% silica. Breathing silica can cause silicosis. Silicosis is a lung disease where lung tissue around trapped silica particles reacts causing inflammation and scarring and reducing the lungs’ ability to take in oxygen. Workers who breathe silica day after day are at greater risk of developing silicosis. Silica can also cause lung cancer and has been linked to other diseases, such as tuberculosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, kidney, and autoimmune disease.

Recent NIOSH field studies identified overexposure to airborne silica as a health hazard to frack site workers.

Large quantities of silica sand are used during hydraulic fracturing. Sand is delivered via truck and then loaded into sand movers, where it is subsequently transferred via conveyer belt and blended with other hydraulic fracturing fluids prior to high pressure injection into the drilling hole. Transporting, moving, and refilling silica sand into and through sand movers, along transfer belts, and into blender hoppers can release dusts containing silica into the air. Workers can be exposed if they breathe the dust into their lungs.

NIOSH identified seven primary sources of silica dust exposure during hydraulic fracturing operations:

  • Dust ejected from thief hatches (access ports) on top of the sand movers during refilling operations while the machines are running (hot loading).
  • Dust ejected and pulsed through open side fill ports on the sand movers during refilling operations
  • Dust generated by on-site vehicle traffic.
  • Dust released from the transfer belt under the sand movers.
  • Dust created as sand drops into, or is agitated in, the blender hopper and on transfer belts.
  • Dust released from operations of transfer belts between the sand mover and the blender; and
  • Dust released from the top of the end of the sand transfer belt (dragon’s tail) on sand movers.

Employers must provide respiratory protection to protect workers:

Employers must provide workers with respirators if the silica sand exposure is significant. Whenever respirators are used, the employer must have a respiratory protection program that meets the requirements of OSHA’s Respiratory Protection Standard (29 CFR 1910.134). This program must include proper respirator selection, fit testing, medical evaluations, and training.

• If respirators are provided, use at least a NIOSH- approved N95 respirator. If the silica level is more than 10 times the PEL, a half-face respirator is not protective and a respirator that offers a greater level of protection (e.g., a full-facepiece respirator, which will protect workers at silica levels up to 50 times the PEL) must be used. Full-face powered air-purifying respirators (PAPR) provide more protection than half-face air-purifying respirators. In general, workers find PAPRs to be more comfortable.

For more information, on respiratory protection see OSHA’s

Safety and Health Topics page https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/respiratoryprotection/index.html and https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/etools/respiratory/index.html

What additional health and safety hazards exist during hydraulic fracturing?

In addition to silica hazards, workers may be exposed to other work
site health hazards that can include exposure to diesel particulate and exhaust gases from equipment, high or low temperature extremes, high noise levels, and overexertion leading to sprains and strains. In addition, fatigue may be a concern due to long working hours.

Hydraulic fracturing sites also have safety hazards similar to those at other oil and gas drilling sites, including:

Being struck by moving equipment, including motor vehicle accidents (primarily when traveling to and between well sites), tools, and falling objects.

Poor lighting.

Being caught in pinch points (such as hammer union wings and hammers, pump iron, and racks).

Falling from heights.

Being struck by high-pressure lines or unexpected release of pressure (for example, mismatched or worn hammer unions, line failure).

Fires or explosions from flowback fluids containing ignitable materials (e.g., methane) and other flammable materials stored or used at the well site.

Working in confined spaces with possibly dangerous chemicals, radioactivity or excessive noise levels, such as sand storage trailers, frac tanks, and sand movers – where it is often necessary to take protective precautions for the skin, eyes, ears and respiratory systems, by wearing and using protective clothing, respirators, eye wear, hearing protection, hazmat protective gear and radioactive monitors.

For More Info: https://www.osha.gov/dts/hazardalerts/hydraulic_frac_hazard_alert.html

Contact OSHA: Contact your nearest OSHA office, visit http://www.osha.gov, or call OSHA at 1-800-321-OSHA (6742), TTY 1-877-889-5627. Contact NIOSH: For more information about occupational safety and health topics, please contact NIOSH at 1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636), TTY 1-888-232-6348, email: cdcinfo@cdc.gov 

More Resources:

A comprehensive review of health issues on the frack fields, produced by Food and Water Watch

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