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Occupational Safety and Health Risks of Fracking Operations

By Scott Schneider

Hydraulic fracturing – commonly known as “fracking” – is a rapidly growing business in the U.S. and Canada. Thousands of new wells to extract oil or gas are drilled each year.

Fracking’s environmental impacts are heavily scrutinized and hotly debated, but little attention has been paid to the occupational risks of these operations. While fracking operations can be hazardous, they can also be done safely.

In addition to controls and prevention efforts (see below), workers need to be fully trained on the hazards and how to protect themselves.

The LHSFNA’s Occupational Health and Safety Division can help signatory employers assess and improve safety and health conditions at fracking sites. Contact the Division for direct assistance at 202-628-5465.

Safety Hazards

  • Falls: OSHA requires fall prevention for any work over four feet high. Falls occur due to:
    • Unguarded sides of a rig
    • Holes for the drill pipe prior to installation
    • Ladder use
    • Climbing the derrick
    • Working from truck beds while unloading equipment
    • Access and egress to mobile equipment

    Slips and falls over hoses or materials or on slippery surfaces can be prevented by covering floor openings, guarding platforms, using fall protection and maintaining an orderly worksite.

  • Struck-by: Workers can be injured or killed if struck by:
    • Trees while clearing the site
    • Pipe while moving it on and off the site
    • Tongs or spinning chain while tripping in and out
    • High pressure hoses
    • Hand tools
    • Rigging cable
    • Falling objects

    Struck-by hazards can be prevented by using tag lines on loads, keeping distance from rotating objects, keeping loads secured, installing kickboards on elevated platforms and using tailropes on tools./p>

    Runovers and backovers of workers by dump trucks, tankers and other machinery can be prevented through use of spotters and backup technology. Internal traffic control plans can be deployed to regulate vehicular movement, minimize backing and create pedestrian safe zones.

  • Caught-between: Workers can be crushed or caught between:
    • Rigs
    • Spinning chains
    • Equipment
    • Unguarded machinery

    These injuries are preventable by machine guarding and the lockout of equipment during maintenance.

  • Remote sites: Extraction operations are often in rural areas and must be fully capable to handle emergencies such as fires, blowouts and hydrogen sulfide exposures.
  • Other hazards: Frayed cords, unsafe/ungrounded equipment and contact with overhead power lines can pose problems. Crane safety must be an integral part of rigging up and down. Confined spaces may be present. Welding poses a safety risk due to the use of compressed gases. Trenching collapse risks can be prevented with appropriate shoring.

Health Hazards

  • Silica: Large amounts of sand are used to help fracture shale and keep the fractures open. Studies by NIOSH show the potential for high exposures to silica which is known to cause silicosis and lung cancer. Controls such as wetting the sand and enclosing the transport operations are recommended.
  • Noise: Noise is a major problem on fracking sites. Much of the noise is from heavy equipment and can be reduced by engineering solutions (noise absorbing materials, “buy quiet” programs).
  • Heat/Cold: Temperature extremes pose a risk to workers for heat and cold stress. Appropriate clothing, liquids (hot and cold), rest breaks, shade/warming areas and readiness for treating affected employees are important precautionary procedures.
  • Sunlight: Solar exposure can cause skin cancer, and workers need to be protected from exposure with clothing and sunblock.

[Scott Schneider is the LHSFNA’s Director of Occupational Safety and Health.]

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