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June 17, 2014
Hydraulic fracturing: Growing industry, increasing fatalities
By Emily Scace, Senior Editor, Safety

Image credit: NIOSH

At Safety 2014, the annual conference held by the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE), Jon P. Koppari, an instructor with OSHA’s Directorate of Training and Education Office for Construction Safety Training, spoke to an audience of safety professionals about the a hazards associated with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and the reasons for the industry’s high fatality rate. Keep reading to learn what he had to say.

From 2003 to 2010, oil and gas extraction workers experienced an on-the-job fatality rate seven times that of general industry as a whole. Small companies—those with fewer than 20 employees—have the highest fatality rates.

According to Koppari, the problem stems partially from the nature of the hydraulic fracturing workforce. Because fracking is a growth industry in a challenging economy, many workers are joining the industry from other, unrelated fields. Since many of these workers lack the background in similar industries that would provide a foundation in safety issues, training by the employer is even more important—but often an area where companies fall short. If employers fail to provide high-quality safety training to this influx of new workers, injuries and fatalities can result. In fact, 55 percent of the fatalities in this sector involve workers with less than one year on the job.

Though safety training is crucial to keeping fracking workers safe, the transient nature of the workforce and the worksites, along with the boom and bust cycle that characterizes the industry, makes this a challenging task for employers. With highly mobile worksites and a constantly changing workforce, it can be difficult for employers to keep track of workers and ensure that they have received appropriate safety training. However, safety training is not optional; OSHA requires employers to train workers on the hazards they are exposed to and safe work practices to protect themselves.

Fracking hazards: Struck-by injuries, silica, and more

According to Koppari, struck-by incidents are one of the most serious hazards at fracking sites, responsible for 55 percent of fatalities. The culprit in struck-by incidents can take a variety of forms, from equipment to high-pressure lines to falling objects.

Motor vehicle accidents are another hazard associated with fracking. With many worksites located in remote areas and employees often working long hours, fatigue when traveling to and from these areas can result in tragic consequences. Poor lighting when traveling early in the morning or late at night can exacerbate these issues.

In 2012, OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) issued a joint hazard alert focusing on overexposure to silica on fracking sites. Crystalline silica, which is used to stimulate the production of natural gas, is a dust that can cause silicosis, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and other conditions when inhaled in unsafe quantities. A NIOSH study discovered that 47 percent of fracking sites had silica exposures greater than OSHA’s permissible exposure limit (PEL), with 9 percent of sites studied exposing workers to silica at levels 10 or more times the PEL.

Other hazards on hydraulic fracturing sites include:

  • Falls from heights;
  • Fires and explosions;
  • Confined spaces;
  • Pinch points;
  • High noise levels;
  • Heat and cold; and
  • Exposure to diesel particulates and exhaust gases from equipment.
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