Mike Krajewski, a father of three, was just 49 when he died of an on-the-job injury in North Dakota, a state that’s been experiencing a fracking boom as oil and gas companies move in to take advantage of the state’s natural resources. His death was the result of an improperly turned valve that caused a pipe to come loose and hit him in the head. A coworker, Brad Hong, was injured during the same incident. Bruce Revers, 58, lives with silicosis, a chronic disease associated with numerous occupations, including fracking; while he worked in a different industry, his life as a silicosis patient relying on external oxygen to breathe is very similar to that experienced by retired fracking personnel.
An explosion in Texas in May of last year injured two unnamed workers. Savatore M. Bombardiere claims toxic chemical exposure at fracking sites in Pennsylvania caused health complications, and is suing his former employers. In September, five unnamed workers were injured when well equipment malfunctioned in Louisiana.
Welcome to one of the most dangerous jobs in the U.S.: being an oil and gas worker, particularly in the fracking industry, which is growing by leaps and bounds, without accompanying safety precautions. As young, inexperienced personnel flood oil rigs, fields and roads, the injury rate is growing, and many communities are having trouble keeping up.
While the dangers of fracking to the environment and communities have long been a topic of discussion, worker welfare hasn’t been covered as thoroughly, and it’s time for that to change. This extremely dangerous industry puts workers at severe risk of occupational injuries as well as future medical complications, and many fracking workers have inadequate personal safety gear and legal protections. That’s bad news for everyone, not just workers.
Hydraulic fracturing, as it’s more formally known, is the use of pressurized fluids to access oil and gas deposits. Environmentally, it involves the waste of billions of gallons of water as well as environmental devastation in communities where wells are placed, and it’s been linked with earthquakes, sinkholes and destruction of wildlife habitat. People living in communities where fracking is used complain of chronic health problems, flaming water and other colorful issues, illustrating that this technique has far-reaching effects that can’t be limited to the oilfield.
For workers, fracking is a way to make a living, but it can be deadly. The oil and gas industry involves working with heavy equipment and toxic chemicals, which can be a heady mix. One of the most dangerous occupations in the injury is that of a driver, as Ethan Ritter can testify: he was struck by a train while crossing the tracks, and that was after incurring an earlier back injury which he was effectively told to cover up. It’s hard to get reliable numbers on workplace injuries because they’re dependent on reporting of said injuries, something strongly discouraged by the industry, but the numbers on deaths are rather shocking: fracking workers are more than seven times more likely to die on the job than other workers in the U.S.
In addition to those occupational hazards, fracking can leave a lingering legacy. Oil and gas workers involved in the fracking industry are exposed to silica dust, a byproduct of the process. OSHA has warned that this substance, when inhaled, can cause lung inflammation. This can lead to an incurable respiratory condition known as silicosis, or it can cause lung cancer, chronic pulmonary obstructive disorder, kidney disease, and autoimmune conditions. Some people develop illnesses after weeks or months of exposure, while others don’t get sick until the end of a lifetime of work, a situation reminiscent of workers with health problems related to asbestos and coal exposure.
Even as the number of wells has increased and the number of workers has gone up, inspections have gone down, and on-the-job injuries have climbed. It’s time for fracking’s dangers to workers to take center stage along with its environmental problems and the harm it causes to communities, because everyone deserves access to a safe and healthy work environment.
Photo credit: greensefa