Four Fatalities Linked to Used Fracking Fluid Exposure During ‘Flowback,’ NIOSH Reports by Robert Iafolla, May 20, 2014, Daily Environment Report Initial government field studies on hydraulic fracturing operations suggest that workers could be exposed to hazardous levels of volatile hydrocarbons from used fracking fluids, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health said May 19.
At least four workers have died since 2010, apparently from acute chemical exposures during flowback operations, which involve transferring, storing and measuring fluids that return to the surface after fracking, NIOSH said in a blog post.
The institute assessed worker exposure to other chemicals mixed into fluids that are injected into the earth during fracking, said Max Kiefer, director of NIOSH Western States Office. Those findings will be detailed in later publications, including a peer-reviewed case study this summer, Kiefer said. “But right now, the exposures of concern from a worker standpoint are from endogenous hydrocarbons that can be emitted from returned flowback fluids, not from other chemicals,” Kiefer told Bloomberg BNA May 19.
NIOSH highlighted how little is known about the potential health hazards associated with fracking, such as chemical exposure, in contrast to the well-developed knowledge about safety hazards from accidents common to oil and gas extraction.
Fracking operators mix silica sand and chemicals into water, which is injected underground to fracture shale formations. The liquid mix is removed and the sand remains in the broken shale, acting as a “proppant” to keep the fractures open and allow oil or natural gas to flow. The liquid that flows back can contain volatile hydrocarbons picked up from the shale formations, NIOSH found.
The workers, who were located at well sites in the Williston Basin in North Dakota and Montana, often died when working alone.
Risk to a Temporary Workforce
Dan Neal, director of Equality State Policy Center in Wyoming, said health hazards pose a particular risk to fracking workers—known as roughnecks—because the work is temporary, and the worksites are transient.
A roughneck could get sick after work with a company has finished, plus it could be difficult to establish a causal connection between exposure at a particular site and an illness, Neal said. These factors could conspire to make worker compensation impossible to obtain, [Intentional to ensure no compensation or records?] he said. “Roughnecks are sort of your ultimate temp worker,” Neal told Bloomberg BNA May 19. “Fracking doesn’t fit the traditional employment model, which is what safety and health regulations are built around.”
Moreover, Neal questioned whether health hazards from chemical exposure is something the industry has examined. [Emphasis added]
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