NIOSH Field Effort: Health Hazards of Hydraulic Fracturing

Published May 9, 2012

The NIOSH Field Effort to Characterize Chemical Exposures in Oil and Gas Extraction Workers aims to identify, characterize and control workplace chemical exposures through partnerships within the oil and gas extraction industry. AIHA® members Eric J. Esswein, MSPH, CIH, and John Snawder, PhD, DABT—both of NIOSH—recently presented findings from the field effort on the health hazards of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) with Michael Breitenstein. Little information exists regarding chemical exposure risks in the oil and gas extraction industry; the presentation listed several unknowns, such as work practices, products, formulations, equipment, and where chemical exposures are most likely to occur. Field work was performed in 2010 and 2011 at 11 sites in five states.

The presentation identified the following potential chemical exposures for workers involved in fracking operations:
  • Silica
  • Diesel particulate
  • Volatile organic compounds (NBTEX)
  • Hydrogen sulfide (H2S)
  • Acid gases (HCl)
  • Aldehydes (biocides)
  • Metals (Pb)

Up to four million pounds of sand is used per well in fracking, making respirable crystalline silica exposure a health hazard risk in the fracking industry. Exposure to respirable silica can occur during sand moving operations, loading operations, traffic on site, and anywhere that dust is visible. The group concluded that diesel particulate was also a likely health hazard for oil and gas extraction workers.

The presentation includes a list of proposed controls to mitigate hazards at fracking work sites, including substituting ceramic sand for silica sand, an effective respiratory protection program, and Prevention through Design.

View the full presentation on the Institute of Medicine website.