Mark Stelmack is OSHA’s area director of the Wilkes-Barre Area Office, a region busy with drilling sites. In that capacity, he manages a full service area office consisting of 15 employees tasked with carrying out duties of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and enforcing the Occupational Safety and Health Act in a jurisdictional area consisting of 20 counties in Pennsylvania (Stelmack, 2014).
1). What do you think are the most concerning health risks that workers face on fracking sites?
It has been the experience of this office that exposure to respirable crystalline silica to be a very concerning health risk to workers on these sites. Employee exposure to silica above permissible limits has been encountered on many fracturing sites inspected by the Wilkes-Barre office. Workers also face risk from chemical exposures and high noise levels among others.
2). What do you think workers in the oil and gas industry can do in terms of protecting themselves of possible dangers if protection is not provided?
Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act places the responsibility for worker safety and health on the employer. With respect to health hazards encountered on gas sites (as with any worksite) OSHA would expect an employer to work through a hierarchy of controls to protect employees. If a chemical must be used, OSHA would look for an employer to utilize engineering controls to reduce exposures. If the application of all feasible engineering controls does not adequately reduce exposures, the second tier would be the application of administrative controls. Finally, personal protective equipment may be utilized if all feasible engineering and administrative controls still fail to reduce exposures adequately.
3). How effectively, do you think fracking sites are responding to concerns about workers' conditions and health risks?
I believe that hydraulic fracturing contractors are similar to any other industry in regard to employee safety and health. Some companies are more proactive than others. In general, I think the industry is making gains in improving conditions and reducing exposures to employees. OSHA enforcement and outreach efforts throughout the country have highlighted the need for better protections on hydraulic fracturing sites, in particular, protection against respirable crystalline silica. Industry experts have stepped up their efforts to develop and implement the engineering controls needed to reduce employee exposures to silica and other hazards. The use of ventilation systems and modification to dust producing operations are becoming more prevalent on these sites. While there remains much work to be accomplished before this hazard is eliminated, everyone appears to be moving toward that goal.
4). Considering OSHA’s attempts of trying to tighten regulations for workers in the oil and gas industry for years, and the current problems workers are facing, why/how to you think the industry has been successful in preventing those attempts?
They do have some exceptions to some of the rules depending upon what stage the process is at. For the actual drilling process, I believe they are exempt from lock- out-tag-out and some of the other rules. Why and how that happens is not something that happens at the area office level.
5). What do you think is the future of the industry, in terms of job creation and regulations?
The industry in general is always looking to increase the technology that they utilize. I don’t have any statistical information that would show technological advances in this particular industry resulted in the loss of jobs or any less jobs being available.
I think, just like any industry, if regulations are proposed that they [the industry] do not feel that they could comply with or that it would be an undue burden, they are going to argue against it. There is a new silica rule that is being proposed currently that may fall into this category even though data shows that the proposed rule would greatly benefit employee health. That said, should the proposed silica rule become final, I am confident that both government and industry will work to achieve compliance for the sake of employees.