Fracking Fatalities: Organized Labor Implores Federal Agencies to Stop the Killings

Mike Elk June 14, 2012

A waste water tank truck passes on the main street of Waynesburg, Pa., on April 13, 2012, carrying the byproduct of a process known as hydraulic fracturing—or fracking. (MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)

WASH­ING­TON — As hydraulic frac­tur­ing — also known as frack­ing” — has become a more com­mon way to extract nat­ur­al gas from under­neath the Unit­ed States, employ­ment in the nat­ur­al gas indus­try has expand­ed dra­mat­i­cal­ly. Accord­ing to the Bureau of Labor Sta­tis­tics, between 2003 – 2008 there was a 62-per­cent increase in the num­ber of work­ers employed in the oil and nat­ur­al gas indus­tries in the Unit­ed States. Dur­ing this same peri­od, the num­ber of fatal­i­ties in the indus­tries grew by 41 percent.

Despite the increase in frack­ing sites, the num­ber of inspec­tions of areas being drilled has decreased. Accord­ing to an analy­sis of more than 50,000 inspec­tion reports by The New York Times, the num­ber of drilling rigs rose by more than 22 per­cent in 2011 from the pri­or year, but the num­ber of inspec­tions at such work­sites fell by 12 percent.

In a let­ter sent last week, the AFL-CIO, the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers union and the Unit­ed Mine Work­ers com­plain that the Occu­pa­tion­al Health and Safe­ty Admin­is­tra­tion (OSHA) and the Mine Safe­ty and Health Admin­is­tra­tion (MSHA) are not doing enough to reg­u­late the poten­tial haz­ards that harm frack­ing workers.

A strong effort by the fed­er­al safe­ty and health agen­cies is need­ed to work with the indus­try and involve unions to ensure that these con­trols are prop­er­ly imple­ment­ed as employ­ment in this indus­try sec­tor rapid­ly grows,” the unions and the labor fed­er­a­tion wrote.

Accord­ing to one study by the CDC Nation­al Insti­tute for Occu­pa­tion­al Safe­ty and Health (NIOSH), work­ers in the oil and nat­ur­al gas indus­tries are sev­en times as like­ly to die on the job as work­ers in oth­er indus­tries. The three most com­mon types of fatal acci­dents that those work­ing for well-ser­vic­ing com­pa­nies fall vic­tim to are motor vehi­cle acci­dents (29 per­cent), being struck by objects (20 per­cent), and explo­sions (8 percent). 

Motor vehi­cle acci­dents are a lead­ing cause of death among oil and gas indus­try work­ers in part because of an exemp­tion from fed­er­al high­way safe­ty rules that allow truck­ers to work longer hours than dri­vers in most oth­er indus­tries. In March 2011, Nation­al Trans­porta­tion Safe­ty Board Chair­woman Deb­o­rah A.P. Hers­man wrote a let­ter to the Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion ask­ing the fed­er­al agency to end this exemp­tion. Last Decem­ber, the Fed­er­al Motor Car­ri­er Safe­ty Admin­is­tra­tion declined, say­ing the exemp­tion had already been in place for near­ly 50 years.”

Oth­er oil and gas indus­try trucks crash due to poor main­te­nance. Accord­ing to the Penn­syl­va­nia State Police, 40 per­cent of 2,200 oil and gas indus­try trucks inspect­ed between 2009 and Feb­ru­ary 2012 had to be removed from the road because they were too unsafe to drive.

Those help­ing to pull oil and gas from the ground are also reg­u­lar­ly exposed to can­cer-caus­ing sil­i­ca dust. Frack­ing involves inject­ing large amounts of water, sand and chem­i­cals into the ground to break up shales and bring nat­ur­al gas to the sur­face. A large amount of the sand used in frack­ing often con­tains sil­i­ca dust. A study by NIOSH found that 47 per­cent of all oil and nat­ur­al gas work­ers breath air that exceeds the safe breath­ing lim­its for sil­i­ca dust.

(Those min­ing sil­i­ca sand are also affect­ed by the dust, of course. Cur­rent­ly, an OSHA rule that would set safe­ty stan­dards on the amount of sil­i­ca dust work­ers can be explosed to has been held up by the White House for more than a year; see my sto­ry A Tale of Two Rules: Wash­ing­ton Bureau­cra­cy and the Pol­i­tics of Work­place Safe­ty,” for more on that.)

In order to reduce the num­ber of oil and nat­ur­al gas work­ers killed on the job, orga­nized labor wants OSHA and NIOSH to issue a joint haz­ard” alert iden­ti­fy­ing all the haz­ards and iden­ti­fy a way to deal with them. In addi­tion, the unions want MSHA to iden­ti­fy increased haz­ards asso­ci­at­ed min­ing sil­i­ca sand. Final­ly, they want the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion to imme­di­ate­ly imple­ment the delayed rule lim­it­ing work­ers’ expo­sure to sil­i­ca dust.

The devel­op­ment of new ener­gy sources, and explo­ration of exist­ing ener­gy sources, must be done safe­ly with­out putting work­ers in dan­ger. Through exten­sive efforts, includ­ing effec­tive reg­u­la­tion and over­sight, tremen­dous progress has been made con­trol­ling haz­ards and reduc­ing injuries, ill­ness­es, and fatal­i­ties in coal min­ing and oth­er ener­gy relat­ed sec­tors,” labor offi­cials wrote in the joint let­ter. We urge OSHA, NIOSH, and MSHA to apply the same kind of effort and atten­tion to the hydraulic frac­tur­ing indus­try and relat­ed sec­tors to ensure that work­ers in these indus­tries have the work­place safe­ty and health pro­tec­tions that they need and deserve. “

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Work­ing In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is cur­rent­ly a labor reporter at Politico.
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