AFL-CIO Demands Government Agencies Protect Fracking Workers From Dangerous Exposure

By @TrishaMarczakMP |
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    This Saturday, Aug. 6, 2011 photo shows a natural gas well operated by Northeast Natural Energy in Morgantown, W.Va. (AP Photo/David Smith)

    This Saturday, Aug. 6, 2011 photo shows a natural gas well operated by Northeast Natural Energy in Morgantown, W.Va. (AP Photo/David Smith)


    (MintPress) – With employment in the fracking industry growing at unprecedented rates, workers’ rights and safety issues are beginning to surface among those beginning to see the often high paying jobs as dangerous and potentially harmful to health.

    This issue was front and center in a letter written on behalf of top union organization, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), to leaders within the health, safety and mine industries. Within the letter, the union expresses concern over dangers workers face in the hydraulic fracking industry, highlighting recorded exposure to dangerous chemicals and demanding that enhanced measures be taken to offer protection.

    Specifically, the AFL-CIO cites a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) study in which it revealed, over a period of two years, elevated levels of crystalline silica exposure. According to the Department of Industrial Hygiene and Information Management, inhalation of the naturally occurring crystalline silica can result in a debilitating lung disease, known as silicosis, which reduces the ability to extract oxygen in the lungs, possibly leading to the need for medically administered oxygen. It is not curable.

    “Many of these exposures were well in excess of permissible and recommended levels, putting workers at risk of silicosis, lung cancer and other diseases,” the AFL-CIO letter states. “These findings, coupled with concerns about health risks posed by chemical additives used in the fracking process and the well-documented safety hazards in this industry warrant immediate attention and action.”

    To mitigate the health risks, the AFL-CIO is demanding the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) take action by putting new policies in place — ones that would launch a campaign to inform workers through widespread disbursement of educational materials. It also recommends employers be made to take “effective control measures to protect workers.”

    It also wants OSHA to form new programs to train workers not familiar with fracking, citing the fact that, due to its recent emergence in the U.S., not many workers are trained and informed on the process. Adding requirements monitoring for crystalline silica exposure is also included in its list of requests to OSHA and NIOSH. Calls to the MSHA to evaluate mines used to process the silica sand is also called for by the AFL-CIO.

    Citing the Bureau of Labor Statistics, In These Times reports a 62 percent increase in fracking-related jobs from 2003-2008 — representing the new oil boom experienced throughout the nation, most notably in North Dakota.

    As long as fracking is around, dangers with exposure to crystalline silica will likely exist, as it is a natural material found in sand, granite and rock materials — it becomes dangerous in situations when the material is drilled and blasted, according to the Department of Industrial Hygiene and Information Management. Considering fracking requires drilling into several layers to tap into oil reserves far underground, exposure to the compound is thought to be quite common.

    “According to NIOSH, massive quantities of sand are used in the process,” the letter states, “up to 4 million pounds per well, and the sand is typically 100 percent silica.” The letter goes on to say that “the increased demand for fracking sand has resulted in increased sand mining, processing and transport activities that may increase the risk for workers involved in these related industries.”

    The AFL-CIO also cites 27.5 deaths out of every 100,000 workers in the oil and gas extraction industry — a figure taken during 2003-2009 — seven times greater than the rate applied to the entire U.S. workforce. The figures do not represent deaths blamed on chemical exposure.

    However, a recent report released by the University of Buffalo showed safety violation incidents (including environmental events) related to fracking in Pennsylvania have begun to decline with more safety regulations.

    While fracking is a sensitive issue in the U.S., with environmental groups pointing to concerns over well water contamination associated with chemicals used to extract oil, and others claiming the U.S. source of oil is good for energy dependence. The AFL-CIO isn’t taking a stand on the issue, other than to say in the letter that “meeting our country’s energy needs is an important undertaking” — one the group feels needs to be further monitored, however, to ensure workers’ safety.

    Click here for the full letter.


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