Hidden Hazards at Your Fracking Site and Keeping Workers Safe

By andrew cantle on September 29, 2015

Hidden Hazards at Your Fracking Site and Keeping Workers SafeBenchmark oil prices are currently around $45 a barrel. That’s a six-year low and less than half the $100-plus-per-barrel peak last year. While that's good news for the average driver, it’s bad news for oil companies. And it means oil executives are looking for ways to save money.

That’s why hydraulic-fracturing drillers are going back to the wells they’ve already fracked. They’re pushing to get more out of shale wells that had been considered tapped out, through a process known as “re-fracking.” Procuring more energy this way is much less expensive than establishing new wells.

“While it can cost about $8 million to drill, complete, and stimulate a new tight oil well, re-fracking an existing well can cost just about $2 million,” according to Forbes. And a report in Bloomberg Business states that there are “50,000 existing wells in the U.S. that may be candidates for a second wave of fracking, using techniques that didn’t exist when they were first drilled.”

Silica (sand) is one of fracking’s main ingredients. Frackers blast a mixture of water, chemicals, and sand at a high pressure to dislodge oil and gas from the cracks in shale deposits. Thanks to a new fracking technique, which pumps in even more silica than before, drillers can increase their production by more than 30%.

Therefore, it’s no surprise that the volume of fracking silica (sand) used per well increased 46 percent from the fourth quarter of 2013 to fourth quarter 2014.

But all that silica presents a big problem for fracking site operators.

The Danger

Recent studies by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) have found that fracking miners “may be exposed to dust with high levels of respirable crystalline silica during hydraulic fracturing,” prompting the agency to issue a hazard alert.

Silica dust presents a number of health and safety hazards to workers. According to NIOSH, “Breathing silica can cause silicosis, a lung disease where lung tissue around trapped silica particles reacts, causing inflammation and scarring and reducing the lungs' ability to take in oxygen.”

Inhaled silica can also cause lung cancer, and it has been linked to tuberculosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, kidney and autoimmune disease, and other health problems.

During fracking itself, silica isn’t much of a problem, as that takes place deep beneath the earth’s surface, and far from workers. However, before fracking starts, drillers have to move that silica around — from mine to truck to blender hopper via sand movers and conveyor belts. While the sand is being moved, silica dust can be released into the air — where workers can breathe it in.

During its field studies, NIOSH researchers collected 116 air samples at fracking sites. Of those samples, 79 percent had silica exposures greater than the agency’s recommended level of 0.05 milligrams per cubic meter.

NIOSH’s study did not outline the number of silica dust exposures at fracking sites — or how many workers have been injured or died from their exposure. However, almost all safety agencies and advocates agree that silica dust is a big danger — and many are calling for more alerts and regulations.

“Hazardous exposures to silica can and must be prevented,” said David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health in a press statement. “It is important for employers and workers to understand the hazards associated with silica exposure in hydraulic fracturing operations and how to protect workers.”

How to Protect Your Workers

First, you should collect air samples and determine if and how much silica dust you are releasing into the air.

Next, there are a number of steps you can take to protect fracking miners from silica dust.

  1. Apply water to roads around your site to reduce silica dust.
  2. Limit the number of people and the time they spend in areas where dust levels are high.
  3. Use exhaust ventilation on equipment to reduce dust.
  4. Maintain conveyor belts and other equipment to reduce dust.
  5. Make sure workers wear properly fitted respiratory devices wherever silica dust can appear.

Finally, all employees should fully understand the dangers of silica dust — and be properly trained on the substance’s hazards as well as how to handle and avoid it.                                  

Mobile applications can help here by giving workers access to safety checklists and tips/ideas for how to rectify identified problems — right from their mobile devices and while in the field — to ensure that the worksite is safe from excessive silica exposure.

You can also use mobile apps to train your workers on the dangers of silica dust and to create safety checklists to make sure your site stays silica-safe. These apps’ usefulness doesn’t stop there.

You can store the data you gather during inspections and then retrieve it later and analyze it to further ensure worker and worksite safety, including ongoing compliance with ever-changing OSHA regulations. That data can then also be mined to identify ongoing problem areas and create and provide worker education and training.                                                                                                              

Improving the safety of your fracking site is easier than you think. In addition to mobile checklists for silica safety, GoCanvas has several hundred pre-built app templates for the oil industry in general, including many to assist with OSHA inspections and compliance. You can try them free for 30 days today.