Hydraulic fracturing is focus of new OSHA safety alliance brochure.

A new alliance involving the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and several industry groups is hoping to prevent injuries, illness and deaths in the hydraulic fracturing industry. While fracking is not necessarily more dangerous than other exploratory operations, its growth exposes many more workers to the risks inherent in such activities.

A new brochure, Hydraulic Fracturing and Flowback Hazards Other than Respirable Silica, discusses the risks and prevention techniques. It points out that there is no data available about injuries in fracking but says the risks have increased because of the number of new fracking operations in the past decade. “In light of this, OSHA has determined that additional information concerning hydraulic fracturing and flowback operations hazards should be provided to educate and protect workers,” states the brochure.

Also participating in the alliance are the National Service, Transmission, Exploration & Production Safety (STEPS) Network, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and the National Occupational Research Agenda Oil and Gas Extraction Council, coordinated by NIOSH.

Related: Safety First: Eliminate the Danger

Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, says 112 workers were killed in 2013 in the oil and gas industry. “Too many oil and gas industry workers are being hurt or killed on the job,” he said when signing the alliance agreement prior to his keynote address at the Oil & Gas Safety and Health Conference in Houston. “These tragedies are preventable and we need to work together to address hazards, prevent injuries and save lives.”

The 27-page brochure covers risks and mitigation techniques for each stage of fracking operations.

Transport, rig-up and rig-down

More workers are on site during setup, and the work area is congested with people and multiple vehicles and machines. There are also the dangers associated with such things as material handling, lifting heavy loads, falls from heights, confined spaces and the operation of heavy equipment.

Related: Safety First: That Accident Cost How Much?

Mixing and injection

While the chemicals used in fracking are diluted, exposure is possible while unloading, mixing and blending those chemicals. Along with the proper use of personal protective equipment, it is important to use proper identification and signage, barricades, air sampling, hazard communication and training to
reduce risk.

Exposure to silica is covered by a previous OSHA Hazard Alert due to the large amount of crystalline silica that can pose health hazards if inhaled. Those involved in moving and blending the sand, and workers downwind of these operations, had the highest silica exposures in testing done by NIOSH. But even those workers not in the immediate area had exposures above the NIOSH recommended limits.

Pressure pumping

The operating plan should include information about operating limits, energy isolation, pressure monitoring and the proper use of pressure relief devices. Flammable materials may be present, so proper prevention strategies include air monitoring, the use of flame-resistant clothing when necessary, and proper hazard assessments and communication.

Related: Safety First: Recording Injuries is a Key to Prevention

Flowback operations

The fluid flowing back is under very high pressure and may contain debris such as rocks and mud, equipment parts, and dangerous gases and chemicals. The high pressures also present the risk of fire, explosion and high-energy releases.

Hydrogen sulfide and VOCs

Along with normal H2S strategies to prevent exposure to the poisonous gas, there is also a need to protect workers from exposure to volatile organic compounds and BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes).

The publication has links to several other sources of information, including OSHA/NIOSH publications entitled Worker Exposure to Silica during Hydraulic Fracturing and Silica Exposure during Hydraulic Fracturing.

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