By Sydney Baldwin, Ryanne Waters and Katherine Cirullo
Is there a salary worth risking your health or even your life? Big Oil and Gas might think so, but the ex-industry workers with whom we spoke aren’t so convinced.
Today, Food & Water Watch released Toxic Workplace: Fracking Hazards on the Job, a research brief that exposes the dangers of working in the fracking industry. Subject to long hours on the job, sloppy safety regulations and reporting, lack of injury compensation and close contact with hazardous chemicals, former industry laborers agree that the fracking workplace is a toxic one. As we reflect on the social and economic successes of the labor movement over this holiday weekend, it becomes more evident that the fracking industry may have missed the memo.
The practice of hydraulic fracturing involves drilling down to a targeted rock formation and injecting large volumes of water, sand and toxic chemicals at extreme pressure to create fractures in the rock and release tightly held oil and gas. The chemicals used in the fracking process can cause cancer and damage the nervous system, immune and cardiovascular systems and upset the endocrine system.
At the site, workers can be exposed to volatile organic compounds, including benzene and toluene, as well as fugitive methane, which are often released during fracking and can mix with nitrogen oxide emissions from diesel-fueled vehicles and stationary equipment to form ground-level ozone. Workers can also be exposed to silica sand, which is often used in the fracking process, and is a known human carcinogen. Long term exposure to silica, a component that makes up as much as 99 percent of frac sand, increases the likelihood of developing silicosis, which damages lung tissue and inhibits lungs function. Breathing it can make a person more susceptible to tuberculosis and is also associated with autoimmune disorders and kidney disease.
Randy Moyer, who used to work for the fracking industry as a subcontractor and dealt with shale gas wastewater, told us how he experienced first-hand the horrible effects of dealing with fracking chemicals and radioactive wastewater. He claims that the consequences of spending countless hours on the site included painful rashes, itching, sores and swelling of organs. “When I first got the rash, it was so bad; it’s like being on fire, and nobody can put you out,” Randy said.
To make matters worse, those on the frontlines risking their health and safety each day for the fracking industry are rarely compensated for any health problems they experience. Randy explained that he is going on 35 months without compensation or medical coverage for over twenty emergency room visits and a myriad of doctors’ appointments. “They basically put me out on my own,” he said.
In addition to exposure to harsh chemicals and radiation, workers also have to combat the every day dangers of working on the site, such as precarious equipment and long hours of strenuous work. As a result, the oil and gas industry’s fatality rate is 6.5 times the national average. From 2003-2012, 26 in 100,000 people died while working in the oil and gas industry; the national average for all U.S. jobs is four fatalities in 100,000.
“As they exploit their own workers, the oil and gas industry is always quick to tout the so-called ‘economic benefits’ of fracking,” said Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter. “But what good are jobs that injure workers and rob them of their health? We cannot stand by and allow the industry to profit from the exploitation of its labor force. The experiences of these workers illustrates that fracking is a toxic process through and through.”
With such high risks associated with working in the industry, those contracted to work in this dangerous field should be given extensive safety training and be fully educated in the types of conditions and chemicals they work with. However, Randy explained that workers were prohibited from raising these concerns about unknown chemicals and exposure on the job. “You aren’t allowed to even talk about it; if you talk about it, you’re gone.” He went on to explain the mentality of the industry, “If you don’t know, your company doesn’t know, your workers will never know, because you’re not allowed to discuss any of this on pads or they will fire you.”
To make matters worse, many oil and gas companies offer incentives to encourage laborers not to report safety accidents or file workers’ compensation claims in order to make themselves look good, but this distorts safety statistics.
Frequent accidents are swept under the rug by well site supervisors and company executives to protect profits. Thirty-year veteran of the fracking industry and former master driller, Lee McCaslin explained that previously injured or killed workers had written the job safety training in blood. “I walked around with a broken toe, a broken rib, you now, to get to the safety pad at the end of the hall to get that extra $57 we got for our safety award. I don’t know if it was worth the suffering,” Lee said. “Even our bosses knew that we were injured, but as long as we had no reporting of an accident, the whole crew was viable for those bonuses,” he said.
Allowing overly exhausted workers to operate and maintain heavy drilling machinery in such dangerous conditions without any consideration for safety is common practice in the fracking industry. Many accidents occurring in the fracking industry stem from the irregular and long work hours. Lee McCaslin recalled working fourteen-hour days. “The hours are just enough to put you into a state of being where you walk around like a zombie half of the time.”
This is clearly an industry that places no value in the safety, or even lives, of their workers. “You’re expendable to the industry. There is always someone else to come fill that seat,” Randy quipped.
When asked what he would say to someone trying to work in the fracking industry, Randy stated, “This will ruin your health. It takes a very small amount of this to do it. If you value your health, you won’t even get close to it.” As Lee reflects on his time as an industry laborer, he claims “I’m grateful for my life today.” No one should fear for his or her life at work, but unfortunately, this is the reality that oil and gas industry workers face on a daily basis.
Update, August 29: Preliminary field studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) find that workers in the oil and gas industry can be exposed to higher than recommended levels of benzene.