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Industry Workers

According to the Census of Employment and Wages in 2011, there are over 450,000 workers employed in the oil and gas extraction industry in the United States. Industry workers in oil and gas exploration and development are vulnerable to many health hazards in their day-to-day work. Between 2013 and 2017, records show 489 oil and gas workers were killed while on the job. In order to ensure worker safety, it is vitally important that proper personal protective equipment (PPE) is worn and that safety measures are followed to prevent accidents and exposure to hazardous chemicals. According to OSHA, safety and health hazards or dangerous conditions that can lead to fatalities include vehicle accidents, being struck by/caught in/caught between equipment, explosions or fires, falls, and exposure to high levels of toxic chemicals. 

Some health hazards may not lead to fatality but will still negatively impact workers’ health. These health hazards include exposure to diesel exhaust, particulate matter, hydrocarbon gases and vapors, hydrogen sulfide, naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM), silica, other hazardous chemicals, and extreme temperatures or loud noises.

On top of concerns regarding exposure to hazardous chemicals, workplace accidents can also prove dangerous to workers. The oil and gas industry is a 24-hour, all-season industry. This results in long work shifts, extended work periods, and extreme weather conditions that can create additional challenges and stress for workers. A recent study evaluated over 300 industry workers and found that their mental health, stress level, and fatigue were contributing factors in their behavior around safety. Therefore, it is in the best interest of employers to ensure staff are balancing their mental health, stress level, and fatigue in order to decrease the likelihood of workplace accidents.

Worker wearing personal protective equipment with listing of potential workplace hazards caused by oil and gas operations.

Graphic courtesy of Tara M. Zrinski for Elsevier Oil & Gas Research Solutions (2014)

Waste Exposure in the Field

One way industry workers can be exposed to hazardous SGD chemicals is through the waste stream. Fracking waste is either a solid, liquid, or sludge. 

Solid waste includes drill cuttings, contaminated equipment, drilling chemicals, and filter socks. Workers are exposed to solid waste through tasks such as handling drill cuttings, using equipment, removing scaling from pipes or other equipment, and loading and unloading waste for transport. The exposure pathway can be inhalation, ingestion, or skin contact. Solid waste often contains toxic chemicals used for drilling. However, these chemicals do not need to be publicly disclosed, making it difficult to connect them to potential health impacts. Working with drill cuttings can also expose workers to radioactivity. 

Sludge waste includes concentrated toxics, brine, and solids. It is the material that settles in the bottom of tanks or pits after the liquid waste has been processed. Workers are exposed to sludge through loading and unloading sludge for transport, direct contact with sludge, spills, or accidents. The exposure pathway can be inhalation, ingestion, or skin contact. Levels of toxics in the waste can vary, but some health impacts could include cancer and harm to the nervous, immune, cardiovascular, and respiratory systems. 

Liquid waste includes both flowback/return frack fluid and produced water. It can include brine, radium 226 and 228, and heavy metals. Workers can be exposed to liquid waste in a variety of methods, including handling flowback water, working in pits or above-ground frac tanks, and loading and unloading waste. The exposure pathway can be inhalation, ingestion, or skin contact.

Chemical Exposure and Health Impacts

For more information on how to protect the health of an industry worker, see the Protecting Your Health page. 

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