Fracking and worker safety

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The mining sector (a category that includes oil and gas) has the second highest fatal injury rate behind agriculture/forestry/fishing/hunting. Mining had a mortality rate of 15.8 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2011, and 19.8 per 100,000 workers in 2010. Deaths for the oil/gas industry typically account for roughly two-thirds of mining sector fatalities.[1]



In 2005, as fracking accelerated, federal labor officials noticed fatalities among oil and gas workers rose 15 percent from 2003 to 2004. After investigating, the CDC. found that - taking into account the growth in drilling - the overall fatality rate was increasing, meaning the relative risk was rising. Shifts grew longer, more inexperienced workers were hired, and older rigs were being pressed into service, the agency concluded.

Oil/gas industry fatalities increased from 68 in 2009 to 107 in 2010 (the 2010 BP Deepwater rig explosion itself killed 11 workers) to 110 in 2011. 2011's overall industry numbers were slightly below the statistics for 2006 to 2008, a period that roughly coincides with the start of the U.S. shale and fracking boom.

Oil and gas support activities had the largest spike in deaths with 58 in 2011, up from 48 in 2010. In 2009, there were 27 deaths in that field.[2]


Of the 716 oil/gas worker fatalities that occurred during 2003-2009, the majority were either highway motor vehicle crashes (29%) or workers being struck by tools or equipment (20%). The next most common fatal events were explosions (8%), workers caught or compressed in moving machinery or tools (7%), and falls to lower levels (6%).[3]

Highway crashes have been found to often involve over-worked and fatigued employees driving in company vehicles after long shifts, due to regulatory exemptions for the oil/gas industry, such as oil field exemptions from highway safety rules that allow truckers to work longer hours than similar drivers in other industries. Fracking increases the risk, as it leads to far more trucks on the road — roughly 500 to 1,500 truck trips per well — than traditional drilling, due to the millions of gallons of water used per well.[4]

About 42 percent of workers in the mining industry are considered sleep-deprived.[5]


In October 2012, president-elect of the Association of American Pesticide Control Officials (AAPCO) Jeff Comstock said anti-microbial chemicals used in fracking fluids need to be reviewed by the U.S. EPA and specifically labeled for use in hydraulic fracturing to protect workers' safety. The chemicals, called biocides, are used to inhibit the growth of bacteria inside well bores. Because biocides control living organisms, they are similar to pesticides that control bugs or fungicides that control fungi and are regulated under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). Under that act, EPA's anti-microbial division needs to review chemicals and assign guidelines for use in fracking. The application rate of the product and the protective clothing needed for workers may be different in oil and gas compared with other industries where the same anti-microbial is applied.

According to Comstock: "It would be designing a label that'd go on the product that says OK, you mix this particular product at a 1,000-to-1 ratio, and when you are mixing these compounds together, you should be wearing these kinds of clothes or face shields. The labeling addresses the health and safety factors for the person using the chemical, and then also the environmental impact or benefit of using that chemical."

So far EPA has only reviewed glutaraldehyde, a biocide, under FIFRA. Comstock said other anti-microbials used in fracking remain uncharacterized.[6]


Researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health collected 111 personal breathing zone samples at 11 sites in five states to evaluate worker exposures to respirable crystalline silica ("frac sand") during hydraulic fracturing. Silica is commonly used as a proppant to hold open cracks and fissures created by hydraulic pressure. At each of the 11 sites, exposure exceeded the OSHA and NIOSH safety thresholds, in some cases by 10 or more times. Based on the evaluations, an occupational health hazard was determined to exist for workplace exposures to crystalline silica.[7]


Hydrofluoric acid corrodes glass, steel, and rock. Drillers have been injecting it underground for years in diluted quantities to get out the last bits of oil from nearly depleted wells, and injecting in stronger concentrations to dissolve oil-bearing shale. Acidizing is popular in California because the oil-bearing shale is already naturally fractured and buckled from tectonic activity. HF is one of the most hazardous industrial chemicals in use, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The United Steelworkers want its use phased out of oil refineries entirely, calling it a risk too great for the steelworkers and the 26 million Americans living near refineries. The California Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration is not tracking HF acid usage underground within the state.[8] There is no mention of the acidizing in the U.S. BLM’s new draft rule for well stimulation methods, which includes hydraulic fracturing, on federal and Native American lands.[9]

Rail transport

In 2013 the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration began investigating whether chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing are corroding rail tank cars and increasing the potential for tank car corrosion and accidents. Separately, three pipeline companies including Enbridge warned regulators that North Dakota oil with too much hydrogen sulfide, which is toxic and flammable, was reaching terminals and putting workers at risk. In addition to being corrosive and highly flammable, hydrogen sulfide in the air is an irritant and a chemical asphyxiant that can alter both oxygen utilization and the central nervous system, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.[10]


Click here for statistics compiled by the Institute of Southern Studies on fracking and worker safety.


  1. Pamela King and Mike Soraghan, "Oil and gas industry fatalities crept up in 2011 despite no major disasters," E&E, September 21, 2012.
  2. Pamela King and Mike Soraghan, "Oil and gas industry fatalities crept up in 2011 despite no major disasters," E&E, September 21, 2012.
  3. "NIOSH Program Portfolio," NIOSH, accessed September 2012.
  4. Ian Urbina, "Deadliest Danger Isn’t at the Rig but on the Road," NY Times, May 14, 2012.
  5. David Randall, "Rethinking Sleep," NY Times, September 22, 2012.
  6. Gayathri Vaidyanathan, "Official urges EPA review, labeling of fracking substances," E&E, October 24, 2012.
  7. Eric J. Essweina, Michael Breitenstein, John Snawder, Max Kiefer & W. Karl Sieber, "Occupational Exposures to Respirable Crystalline Silica During Hydraulic Fracturing," Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene Volume 10, Issue 7, 2013.
  8. RL Miller, "Why Oil Companies Want to Drop Acid in California," Take Part, Sep 2, 2013.
  9. Robert Collier, "A New California Oil Boom? Drilling the Monterey Shale - Part 1: Distracted by Fracking?" The Next Generation, August 2013.
  10. Jim Efstathiou Jr. & Angela Greiling Keane, "North Dakota Oil Boom Seen Adding Costs for Rail Safety," Bloomberg, Aug 12, 2013.

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