While there are many job opportunities nationwide that come along with new fracking sites, many of them vary in how long they last and whether they are available for locals.
According to Tim Mullaney, a reporter for USA Today, “natural gas and oil exploration have created more than 1 million jobs in recent years [nationwide], with as many as 33,000 specifically from natural gas extraction through shale accounts” (2014, p.1). That includes jobs that are also indirectly associated with the shale boom from manufacturing products for drilling and steel for piping, to transporting the gas.
In just Pennsylvania, for example, a state that is at the center of the fracking boom, fracking has been responsible for over 200,000 jobs with just over 30,000 people employed by industries that are directly tied to the fracking boom, according to Tom Corbett, a former pro-fracking Republican governor of Pennsylvania (Foran, 2014).
Because there are many job opportunities arising that are also not directly associated with the industry, it is difficult to say for sure how many jobs fracking, in particular, has produced. Jobs created directly by fracking consist of natural gas extraction, well drilling, trucking, and engineering. Other specific on-site jobs include field supervisors, ‘treaters’ who are responsible for disposing fracking wastewater, and experienced fracturing equipment operators (Williams, 2014).
OSHA has specific standards for exposure to certain chemicals including benzene in any industry. These are called Permissible Exposure Limits, or PELs, which are regulatory limits on the amount or concentration of a substance in the air (OSHA). While the general exposure limit for benzene is 1 part per million, or ppm, (similar to about one inch in 16 miles), the limit at well sites are 10 ppm. “Oil and gas was exempted because exposure to the chemical was considered more likely to be a problem at refineries,” says R. Dean Wingo, a former assistant regional administrator of OSHA (Soraghan, 2014).
Just as breathing most chemicals in high doses can affect the nervous system, inhaling benzene for even a brief amount of time can lead to effects such as drowsiness, dizziness, unconsciousness, and confusion, all health defects that can lead to major injuries on the site.
Airborne dust from respirable crystalline silica, sand used during fracking, is another exposure for which workers must be protected. “Up to 4 tons of silica sand is transported to a single well site,” (Zrinski, 2014). Workers may be exposed to silica as they load sand that is delivered by truck into sand movers via a conveyer belt and while they add the sand into blenders with other fracking fluids before it is sent down wells under high pressures. The dust can, therefore, be released during any of the transporting, moving, and refilling into blenders process (OSHA n.a.).
Exposures to silica is known to cause “lung cancer, pulmonary tuberculosis, airways diseases, and autoimmune disorders (OSHA). Long-term exposures to silica (up to twenty years) can also increase the risk of developing a respiratory disease called silicosis. The most chronic form of silicosis causes difficulty in breathing while in “accelerated silicosis [the lungs begin to swell, which] occurs after exposure to larger amounts of silica over a shorter period of time (5 to 15 years)” (2014). The most extreme version of the disease, however, called acute silicosis develops when a person is exposed to very large amounts in a short amount of time. This causes “the lungs [to] become very inflamed and fill with fluid, [resulting in] severe shortness of breath and low blood oxygen levels (2014).
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) collected 116 samples from 11 fracking sites across five states and “47% of them showed silica exposures greater than the calculated OSHA PEL,” (OSHA), approximately 0.1 mg/m3, with 9% of the samples 10 or more times the PEL.
Unfortunately, many low-level jobs on the fracking site continue to expose workers to noxious chemicals. Jose Lara, a former industry worker, had been working at fracking sites for six years. His job was to climb into and clean wastewater tanks, which he thinks was the cause of his pancreatic and liver cancer (Food and Water Watch). “Despite the noxiousness of the wastewater, Lara was not supplied with any protective clothing or gear nor was he briefed on the toxins he would be exposed to on the job” (Kelly, 2014). Jose Lara is now deceased.
Even with such dire cases as Jose Lara’s, companies are not held responsible for or penalized high enough to make them follow OSHA standards and regulations such as, “Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act [which] places the responsibility for worker safety and health on the employer” (Stelmack, 2014). OSHA recommends many methods of reducing exposures to silica, benzene and other carcinogens. For one thing, contractors can enforce the use of protective gear among their workers. The companies could also monitor the air, improve their engineering controls, and provide for medical monitoring for their workers as general OSHA standards.
While most companies continue to ignore workers’ safety issues, some workers, on the other hand, are also disrespectful of the safety of citizens and the laws in areas they work. The fracking industry has also been the cause of debate over whether having workers come into new towns is causing local residents’ uneasiness.
Workers pouring in towns have led to many unwanted problems, overwhelming the law. Authorities of most states have stated that the “vast majority of workers streaming in are law-abiding,” but they do not refrain from adding that the “drilling industry has also brought with it a hard-working, hard drinking, rough- and tumble” group of men (Levy, 2011).
In Bradford County, one of Pennsylvania’s most heavily drilled areas, the rush of men from Texas, resulted in increased rates of “arrests, traffic violations, protection-from-abuse orders and warrants issued for people who don’t show up in court,” noted law enforcement officials (Levy, 2011). Officials from other towns have also complained of the rise in theft, violence, sexual assaults, drug abuse, bar fights and abduction. A 23-year- old pipe inspector from Lafayette, La., who was found drinking in a bar says, “We definitely do drink a lot. I ain’t going to lie” (Levy 2011).
According to Holly Richmond, reporter for Grist Environmental News, fracking has led to a greater number of sexually transmitted diseases, drug-related crimes, and sexual assaults in areas where the oil and gas industry sets up shop (2013).
The social impacts of the industry are, indeed, an addition to the poor reputation the industry has been building. Perhaps rates of increasing crime will decrease in coming years with fewer job opportunities as fracking technology develops, causing fewer demand for manual labor. Regardless, workers’ safety and working conditions on sites continue to be a growing issue as companies in the industry fight any attempts to protect workers put forth by OSHA.
Citizens can have a great impact on pushing for an improvement in regulating workers’ safety by being actively informed and advocating for stricter on- site safety guidelines. The government will only take into consideration citizens’ outlook if the public is consistently alert and outspoken.