“Too many oil and gas industry workers are being hurt or killed on the job,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, David Michaels in remarks delivered to the more than 2,000 people who gathered last week in Houston for the 2014 OSHA Oil & Gas Safety and Health Conference. As part of efforts to address industry safety issues, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has announced a new effort to improve the safety of workers employed in the oil and gas industry.
Described as an “alliance,” the initiative involves a two-year agreement signed onto by OSHA, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and what’s called the National STEPS Network – a volunteer organization founded in 2003 in south Texas by OSHA and oil and gas industry companies aimed at improving industry safety in that region. The goal of the new alliance, said OSHA in its announcement, is to prevent “injuries, illnesses and fatalities among workers in the exploration and production sector of the oil and gas industry.
The oil and gas industry is one of the three most dangerous in the US. Last year, 112 oil and gas industry workers were killed on the job and about 9,000 suffered non-fatal, work-related injuries and illnesses, according to data gathered by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Numbers available thus far for 2014 from OSHA reflect more than 60 incidents in which oil and gas industry workers died on the job. There have been at least four fatal oil and gas industry incidents since the beginning of November.
“The rapid growth of employment in this industry has been coupled with an increase in worker fatalities,” said OSHA in announcing the new oil and gas industry safety program.
While there were about 30 fewer such deaths in 2013 than in 2012, the oil and gas industry continues to have one of the highest workplace fatality rates of any US industry sector. For much of the past ten years, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the industry has had a collective fatality rate seven times higher than for all US workers. The CDC also notes that BLS industry fatality rates may not include all oil and gas industry work-related deaths as some people working on or servicing offshore oil platforms may be classified as working in other industries, such as transportation or material moving.
“These tragedies are preventable and we need to work together to address hazards, prevent injuries and save lives,” said Michaels.
When it comes to non-fatal work-related injuries and illnesses, the overall rate of such incidents in the oil and gas industry is about on a par with other private industries. But injuries suffered by oil and gas workers are more serious. This is reflected by the time workers need to recover from these injuries. Oil and gas workers are off work three times longer – 24 days as opposed to 8 – than the median days off for all industries. This, explains the BLS, is because of the type of injury common in the oil and gas industry – such as fractures incurred when people are struck by heavy objects. Other frequent industry hazards include motor vehicle crashes, fires, electrocution and explosions.
Addressing chemical and silica exposure
But physical dangers are not the only hazards that imperil oil and gas industry workers. Recent studies by NIOSH and others show that workers in this industry are at widespread risk of exposure to hazardous chemicals, including benzene and other carcinogenic volatile organic compounds. An investigation by NIOSH has also shown that workers at hydraulic fracturing sites are exposed to respirable crystalline silica that can cause incurable lung disease. Among the other chemical hazards of this work is the potential of exposure to naturally occurring radioactive materials that can be released during oil and gas extraction and can contaminate equipment used in these processes.
Not clear from details available thus far on the new safety alliance, is how much of this effort will focus on chemical hazards and illnesses associated with these exposures. The agreement as shared by OSHA, outlines in broad strokes what the alliance will do. It emphasizes information-sharing, developing educational materials – including a video on struck-by injuries – and raising awareness about industry hazards and leading causes of occupational fatalities.
OSHA meanwhile has released a new publication on responding to hazards in hydraulic fracturing other than respirable silica, including strategies to prevent exposure to VOCs and hydrogen sulfide. According to OSHA spokesperson Mary Brandenberger, the publication was produced in collaboration with industry and released during the safety conference held last week in Houston.
Meanwhile, NIOSH explained via email that the alliance would “primarily focus on promoting best practices for reducing injuries and fatalities.” Asked about work-related illnesses resulting from chemical and other exposures, NIOSH said, “The alliance will not be used to support the ongoing NIOSH fieldwork to characterize chemical hazards to workers.” (emphasis added)
Yet discussing the effort in a phone interview, STEPS Network chair Rick Ingram said the program would look “holistically at the industry” and that chemical exposures would be included. The STEPS Network work-plan for the alliance notes that NIOSH and OSHA will participate in meetings discussing chemical and silica exposure.
“We will look at all primary causes of fatalities,” said Ingram but also at diseases, including those stemming from exposure to hazards that include respirable crystalline silica, VOCs and naturally occurring radioactive materials. “Our team is really determined to make this a meaningful and productive alliance and reduce fatalities and chronic diseases,” said Ingram.
The STEPS Network’s Respirable Crystalline Silica Focus Group is being renamed as the Emerging Issues Group, Ingram explained, to reflect its work on hazards other than silica inhalation.
Industry investigation of silica exposure in fracking – confidentiality guaranteed
Notes from a June 2012 STEPS Network Respirable Crystalline Silica Focus Group meeting suggest that NIOSH first became aware of this crystalline silica issue in the summer of 2008. Samples collected that summer indicated potential personal exposures. The fieldwork that went into NIOSH’s 2012 report that found silica exposures exceeding current NIOSH and OSHA safety limits, began in the summer of 2010 and continued through the fall of 2011. Worth noting is that current OSHA silica standards were established 40 years ago and efforts to make them more stringent have been met with resistance by various industry groups, including the American Chemistry Council’s Crystalline Silica Panel of which the American Petroleum Institute is a member.
As the meeting minutes noted of conditions at that time, “If you observe fracking operations, you can notice there really aren’t any engineering controls for sand. The differences you see are in controls for safety vs. health (i.e.- when workers go up on a sand master, there are rails built in for fall protection or if you are wearing fall protection, there is a big wire that goes across the top of it). But there are no dedicated controls for sand dust…” in such an operation that “typically involves hundreds of thousands of pounds of sand being moved per zone every day.”
Since then, explained Ingram, the industry has made progress in reducing potential silica exposures by raising awareness of the issue among both employers and workers, and by developing new engineering controls. It’s an issue the industry takes very seriously, said Ingram. But there is still more work to do, he said.
NIOSH has not done any additional silica sampling since its fieldwork conducted in 2010 and 2011, explained NIOSH spokesperson Nura Sadeghpour via email. The only other silica-related work NIOSH has done since then, she wrote “is field evaluation for the NIOSH engineering control (the NIOSH mini baghouse retrofit) for silica.” And the only additional hydraulic-fracturing related work by NIOSH, wrote Sadeghpour, is its work examining hazards during what’s called “flowback,” the investigation that showed VOC exposure during this process. “We hope to continue that work, but don’t have any definite plans at this time,” wrote Sadeghpour.
The oil and gas industry, however, is now conducting a survey to gather additional information about crystalline silica exposure in hydraulic fracturing operations. A “blind” study by the American Petroleum Institute, National STEPS Network and Bureau Veritas was launched in August 2013 with a data submission deadline of August 2014. Data is being submitted to Bureau Veritas under an agreement that will keep survey participants’ information – including company names and sampling locations – confidential. The confidentiality agreement promises destruction of original data and related correspondence following its transfer to the database.
Available documents don’t indicate if sampling results will be shared with workers. The survey asks for shift-length (in minutes) but does not indicate if this information-gathering will ask companies to specify if workers are full- or part-time employees or hired through a contractor – details that would be relevant in determining individual worker exposure over time.
NIOSH has also kept its silica data exposure sources confidential. Documents NIOSH shared in response to a FOIA request by The Pump Handle redacted all information that could identify companies at whose gas extraction site the sampling for respirable crystalline silica was conducted. Clearly sharing this information is something that worries the companies involved.
“Our industry has come a long way, working very diligently to reduce fatalities and chronic illness in our industry to protect workers and their families. It’s been a long but productive journey. We’re not there yet but are working very hard to protect workers and their families,” said Ingram. “The people I work with in this industry, the teams that we work with,” he said, “really care about the people in the industry.”
A question to be asked, however, is how not disclosing where harmful exposures are occurring – whether of respirable silica, VOCs or other chemical hazards – benefits worker protection.
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones, Ensia, Time, Civil Eats, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.