OSHA Highlights Fracking Hazards Other than Silica
OIL AND GAS
In response to the large increase in the number of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and flowback operations over the past ten years, OSHA is providing additional information to help educate and protect the growing number of workers on these sites. The agency released a new publication in December to inform oil and gas employers and workers about the hazards created by such operations other than respirable silica, which has been the focus of several recent studies (see results from the first systematic investigation of worker exposure to silica during fracking published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene in 2013). OSHA’s new publication lists primary tasks associated with fracking and flowback, and provides detailed hazard information and suggestions for mitigation for each task.
Potential exposures other than respirable crystalline silica include hydrogen sulfide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). According to OSHA, some wells may contain elevated levels of hydrogen sulfide, and some processes and activities during flowback can lead to potential exposures that may exceed occupational exposure limits to VOCs such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes. And although fracking chemicals are significantly diluted with proppant—solid material used to keep a hydraulic fracture open—and fluid, workers are at risk of exposure when they handle chemicals during unloading, mixing, and injection.
Flowback operations also present hazards for workers; for example, fluid and materials flowing back from the well under high pressures may contain rocks and mud, methane gas, hydrogen sulfide, oil, sand, and small amounts of chemicals that were injected into the well during fracking. Other significant potential hazards during flowback are flammable fluids, atmospheres, and materials. Discharge from the well to flowback tanks, tanker trucks, and other locations may contain high levels of flammable liquids or gases. OSHA notes that leaks and other uncontrolled releases of these materials present a fire hazard: an ignition source as simple as a static charge or cigarette could create a fire or explosion once the airborne concentration reaches the lower explosive limit.
Oil and gas workers also face physical hazards such as vehicle and machinery traffic or movement at work sites, which can be small and congested. Workers may also be exposed to mechanical material handling, manual lifting, and ergonomic hazards during “rig-up” (the delivery and assembly of equipment) and “rig-down” (the dismantling and removal of equipment).
OSHA’s new publication provides links to additional agency resources and other information from NIOSH, including educational materials and information about NIOSH’s Health Hazard Evaluation Program. Readers will also find a flow chart of processes and additional details about fracking and related hazards in the publication’s appendices.
The new publication is the product of the OSHA oil and gas work group with assistance from the National Service, Transmission, Exploration and Production (STEPS) Network team, an all-volunteer organization comprising safety and health professionals in the oil and gas industry.
View the publication as a PDF on OSHA’s website.