A worker sprays a joint on a rig drilling an unconventional natural gas well in BP America's Wamsutter field in Wyoming. OSHA issued a hazard alert this month warning of dangerous toxins associated with hydraulic fracturing activities. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Originally published December 10, 2014, by Environment & Energy Daily. Contact E&E for permission to republish.

The nation’s worker safety agency wants oil and gas workers to know that breathing frac sand isn’t the only dangerous thing at a drilling site.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration posted an alert this month detailing “Hydraulic Fracturing and Flowback Hazards Other Than Respirable Silica.” Those hazards are plentiful. Oil and gas has long had a fatality rate many times higher than average, and among the highest of any industry.

The activities covered in the alert go well beyond the specific practices of fracturing and flowback. They include dangers while driving and erecting rig towers, in addition to fracturing activities such as perforating and pressure pumping.

It also warns of the dangers of explosions and poisonous hydrogen sulfide during flowback operations. The oil and gas industry in recent years has had more deaths from fires and explosions than any other industry (EnergyWire, Oct. 20). Complaints about hydrogen sulfide, also called “sour gas,” are on the rise (EnergyWire, Oct. 21).

The alert says OSHA decided that more information about hazards was needed because of the boom in fracking and drilling operations across the country.

Some in the industry said the alert offers guidance on situations that could be found in any industrial environment.

“Many oil and gas operators have already implemented these suggestions as standard protocol, oftentimes going above and beyond to train and equip their employees with the tools and strategies they need to perform their jobs safely,” said Randy Hildreth of Energy in Depth, an oil and gas group.

The alert comes about 2½ years after OSHA issued a hazard alert to fracking workers about the dangers of breathing in frac sand. The alert came after the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a research agency, found that workers are sometimes exposed to levels of fine sand dust more than 10 times the recommended safe limit.

The dust contains silica or quartz that, if inhaled, can cause an irreversible lung disease known as silicosis, which has been linked to lung cancer (Greenwire, June 22, 2012).

OSHA’s alert does not make specific mention of the growing concern among federal officials that airborne chemicals from well site tanks can disorient and even kill workers who breathe them (EnergyWire, Dec. 4).

The alert lists the “permissible exposure limits” for various hydrocarbons such as toluene and hexane. OSHA chief David Michaels has said that the exposure limits are set too high but that it’s not feasible for OSHA to lower them.

For example, the OSHA limit for benzene is 10 parts per million (EnergyWire, Nov. 4). But John Howard, head of NIOSH, said at a conference last week there is no “safe” level of benzene.

Oil and gas companies have reported lower-than-average injury rates (EnergyWire, Dec. 5). But OSHA officials say the industry has a culture of not reporting injuries (EnergyWire, Dec. 3). 

— Follow E&E reporter Mike Soraghan on Twitter at @MikeSoraghan, contact at msoraghan@eenews.net

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