Actual Data Tell Very Different (and Very Good) Story on Worker Safety
Opponents of natural gas have settled on a strategy of trying to build a new and pathos-driven narrative around the oil and gas industry – namely, that the work it does is exceedingly dangerous, and no amount of oversight can make it safe. However, the oil and gas industry’s number one priority is safety, for both its workers and the environment in which it operates. This commitment comes across in pretty vivid detail for those who take just a second to look at the actual facts.
Unable to pick-up traction on their standard set of claims and accusations, opponents of natural gas have settled on a strategy of trying to build a new and pathos-driven narrative around the oil and gas industry – namely, that the work it does is exceedingly dangerous, and no amount of effort, technology or oversight can make it safe (notwithstanding the fact that over nine million people in the U.S. work in the oil and gas business).
Part and parcel of this strategy is to get folks to believe that oil and gas companies don’t care about their workers, and that they routinely put their employees’ lives in danger just to make a quick buck. Josh Fox’s new short film, which he calls “CJ’s Law,” attempts to advance this narrative.
Unfortunately for Josh – and fortunately for our workforce – a review of available state and federal data suggests the narrative is completely unmoored from reality.
Now, make no mistake: not a single death or a serious injury that happens at an industrial worksite is acceptable to anyone. But in rare cases, accidents and incidents do occur, even with the most stringent regulatory system in place anywhere in the world, and the combined investment of literally billions of dollars each year into new processes, systems and technologies designed and proven to make the workplace even safer.
But Fox isn’t just saying that oil and gas companies don’t care about their employees, as scurrilous a charge as that may be. He’s also saying that the industry’s track-record on safety is bad, a contention echoed by a reporter at E&E News in a piece filed the week after Josh’s new video hit (and featuring the same interview subjects as Josh used).
First-off, let’s acknowledge right at the top that some element of risk is present in just about any job anyone would have in America. Whether you’re a flight attendant, a crossing guard, a bartender, a foreman at a construction site, a technician at a water treatment facility, or a contractor on a drilling rig – there’s always going to be some risk associated with doing what you do, even as that risk is continously lessened and properly and closely managed.
But hey: working on a rig HAS to be more dangerous than working behind a bar, right? Well, actually — not according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
According to BLS statistics, the fatality rate for “mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction” is lower than a lot of other industries you might be surprised to see on this list. Here are just a few:
- aircraft pilot or flight engineer
- steel workers
- farming and ranching
- truck drivers
- taxi or limousine drivers
- waste management
Again, this isn’t to say there is no risk involved in developing oil and gas resources. But this information does suggest the claim that wellpads are “among the most dangerous workplaces in the country” might be a little hyperbolic.
The 2011 National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries also lists the total number of fatalities, and notes that the number of fatalities from oil and natural gas development is exceeded by many other industries. Those include, but are not limited to:
Motor vehicle operators (851 deaths); Transportation and warehousing (733 deaths); Construction (721 deaths); Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting (557 deaths); Construction trade workers (511 deaths); Government (495 deaths); Truck transportation (474 deaths); Professional and business services (424 deaths); Installation, maintenance and repair occupations (362); Manufacturing (322 deaths); Local government (294 deaths); Retail trade (266 deaths); Building and grounds cleaning maintenance occupations (265); farming, fishing and forestry (262); Crop production (238 deaths); Leisure and hospitality (224 deaths); Sales and related occupations as a sector (228 deaths).
A review of additional federal statistics highlights the industry’s commitment to safety, and also the progress that continues to be made. In fact, the number of injuries in the sector has been declining even as the industry has significantly increased its operations, which of course has resulted in U.S. oil and natural gas production reaching production levels that are exceeding or nearing historic highs.
Such an achievement doesn’t come without a very targeted focus on ensuring the safety of worksites. Eric Esswein, a Senior Industrial Hygienist at the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH), made this very observation last year when he visited several areas undergoing shale development, concluding that the oil and natural gas industry “runs very, very safe work practices and sites.”
Esswein’s experience is backed by federal statistics. According to data released by BLS late last year, injuries in the oil and natural gas industry declined in 2011 by an amazing 33 percent. The injury rate – 0.8 cases per 100 workers – is well below the national incidence rate of 3.5 cases per 100 workers. Having an incident rate so far below the national average doesn’t happen by accident.
The oil and gas industry’s number one priority is safety, for both its workers and the environment in which it operates. And it’s a commitment that comes across in pretty vivid detail for those who take just a second to look at the actual facts.
To EHS Today – Its Own Facts
EHS Today recently featured a study by Eric Esswein, a Senior Industrial Hygienist at the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH), who examined oil and gas workers’ potential exposure to crystalline silica. The publication used an alarming lead-in for its story – “What the Frack? Safety Concerns Surface in Hydraulic Fracturing” reads the headline. Instead of focusing on the whole story – or even making a half-hearted attempt to examine the issue objectively – the magazine offered an incomplete and manufactured narrative that doesn’t quite comport with the facts as they actually exist.
EHS Today recently featured a study by Eric Esswein, a Senior Industrial Hygienist at the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH), who examined oil and gas workers’ potential exposure to crystalline silica. The publication used an alarming lead-in for its story – “What the Frack? Safety Concerns Surface in Hydraulic Fracturing” reads the headline – before declaring that the process is associated with a “ravaged environment and damaged communities.” Perhaps no one told EHS Today that “Promised Land” was a work of fiction.
To its credit, the Esswein report notes that silica exposure isn’t a factor in or even relevant to all shale plays, and that the oil and natural gas industry “runs very, very safe work practices and sites.” Of course, EHS Today left out those details, along with the fact that the industry served as a willing partner in Esswein’s research and even began implementing the study’s suggestions well before EHS Today ever thought to write about the subject.
Instead of focusing on the whole story – or even making a half-hearted attempt to examine the issue objectively – the magazine provided an overview of the study’s findings and quoted two groups: the Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy (PSE) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The latter is a well-known commodity in the anti-hydraulic fracturing camp, suggesting last year that hydraulic fracturing is “poisoning the drinking water of at least 20 families” in Dimock, PA. Yes, that’s the same Dimock where EPA declared the water safe after conducting extensive water testing. And we all know that the objective of PSE has little to nothing to do with health, science, or engineering. In fact, E&E News noted in a story a couple months back that the “language on the group’s website suggests an anti-development viewpoint.”
Read through the actual paper, and what you find is that Esswein’s research points to industry working actively and voluntarily with public officials to identify potential risks, and then helping to manage and mitigate those risks before a problem occurs. In fact, the National STEPS Network, a consortium of industry officials and OSHA representatives founded to “reduce injuries and fatalities in the oil and gas sector,” made the silica issue a top priority shortly after the study’s release, convening a task force to implement NIOSH’s recommendations. That effort included no less than 167 individuals representing over 64 industry groups and companies. Working with representatives from OSHA and others, the group established guidelines for minimizing oil and gas workers’ exposure to crystalline silica and began implementation of these guidelines in shale development operations nationwide. These guidelines include:
- Exposure reduction work practices and procedures, such as capping unused fill ports, minimizing sand fall distances during transfer operations, installing shrouds around chutes, using enclosed cabs/booths, etc.
- Ensure that all workers required to wear respirators are provided the correct NIOSH-certified respirator (based on exposure) and are medically cleared, trained, and fit tested
- Identify through signage or training the seven points of generation identified by NIOSH and equipment-specific potential exposure zones at the work site
- Respiratory protection requirements
- Inspection process to ensure plan implementation
- Conduct & document silica exposure awareness training for workers.
This, of course, serves as a clear example of the industry’s commitment to safe operating practices, which requires a dynamic approach to fixing a problem before it actually becomes one. Federal statistics suggest those investments are paying off: The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest “Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses” shows that the oil and gas industry’s incident rate declined by 33 percent from 2010 to 2011. It’s worth mentioning this reduction occurred even as the volume of activity in the oil and gas space increased significantly nationwide.
Of course, all this is bad news to those who oppose oil and natural gas development based on ideological – as opposed to scientific – concerns. Groups like NRDC and PSE do – both funded by the anti-development Park Foundation – certainly fit into this category. Thankfully, for everyone else – and especially those who work their tails off to produce the energy our country needs – the constant and fairly dramatic improvement in practices, processes, and technology is good news indeed, with the upshot being: fewer accidents, lessened exposure, less risk, and greater efficiency.
The full story about Esswein’s research paints a much less alarming picture than what EHS Today leads us to believe, and in fact the details explained above would have made for an interesting story itself: industry meeting the challenge of safety to improve working conditions for its employees. But alarmism clearly proved too enticing to EHS Today, resulting in the incomplete and manufactured narrative that doesn’t quite comport with the facts as they actually exist.
Institute of Medicine Roundtable: Skewed View of Shale Development
Make no mistake, health impacts from natural gas production are not a foregone conclusion. Accepting them as one, in our judgment, is irresponsible and is a critical flaw that served as the foundation of this gathering.
Last week the Institute of Medicine held a roundtable discussion to examine the “public health impacts” of natural gas development from U.S. shale resources. Unfortunately, as is the case with most events concerning natural gas, it seems the outcome was determined before the first word was spoken. This is clear by a quick review of the agenda which lists the meeting’s second objective as the “application of health impact assessments to identify ways to mitigate adverse health effects.”
As public health researchers we were surprised to see “adverse health effects” readily accepted as a key assumption. Especially considering the evidence supporting this is a collection of anecdotes refuted by international experts and past experience.
Given this background, some context is needed on the events leading to the roundtable, as well as to why the assumption of “health impacts” is problematic.
As natural gas development has moved into new areas, a small group of voices, most with ties to anti-natural gas advocacy groups, has stated the process negatively impacts public health.
Born in the northeast U.S., and finding other supporters across the nation, these actors have claimed natural gas operations have led to health impacts including symptoms such as nosebleeds, sores, nausea, and disorientation among others. These claims, many of which have been disproven, have largely surfaced in just the past few years, despite the 100 plus year history of oil and natural gas development in the United States, over 60 of which have involved the use of hydraulic fracturing.
Make no mistake, health impacts from natural gas production are not a foregone conclusion. Accepting them as one, in our judgment, is irresponsible and is a critical flaw that served as the foundation of this gathering.
The most well known “study” supporting the narrative of negative health impacts, in animals, has received heavy criticism by some of the world’s most respected scientists. For example, in commenting on the study Dr. Ian Rae, a professor at the University of Melbourne in Australia and a co-chair of the Chemicals Technical Options Committee for the United Nations Environment Programme, stated “It certainly does not qualify as a scientific paper but is, rather, an advocacy piece that does not involve deep…analysis of the data gathered to support its case.” (emphasis added)
However, even more concerning than the acceptance of these “health impacts” was the anti-natural gas advocacy affiliation of many conference participants. Attendees were required to identify themselves before offering inquiries to panelists. As part of this disclosure, it became clear that a majority of attendees not representing media or federal agencies were from anti-natural gas advocacy groups. In fact, the amount of veterinarians from New York and researchers from Ithaca was astounding. Taken together, their presence was large enough to form a significant percentage of attendees, especially those most active in the proceedings.
In fact, one of the more active participants was Jeff Zimmerman. Mr. Zimmerman identified himself as a representative of Damascus Citizens for Sustainability. What we didn’t know at the time was Jeff Zimmerman is a Washington, D.C. based attorney actively litigating against natural gas producers.
It was disconcerting that critical assumptions were made without supporting data, and local activist groups and their litigating counsel, were shaping discussions at what was promoted as an unbiased dialogue on emerging energy sources.
But this important background aside, a closer examination, using experience and comprehensive data as opposed to assumptions, continues to suggest the assertions regarding negative public health impacts from natural gas development are unsupported and unsettled science.
Areas Experiencing Largest Development See Increases in Health Across all Parameters
We took a look at public health assertions last October in response to a letter submitted to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Curious about the validity of these claims, we turned our attention to the Forth Worth, Texas area (the nation’s 4th largest metropolitan statistical area) where more than 16,000 natural gas wells have been developed over the past decade.
What we found was pretty interesting. Community Health Status Indicators (CHSI) from 2000 – 2008 show every major health indicator improved at the same time natural gas production rapidly expanded.
For example, in 2009 natural gas production in the Barnett Shale had increased by 2,144 percent from 2000 levels. In just nine years, technological advancements enabled 22 times as much natural gas to be produced as was produced in 2000. As production occurred and expanded, the health of the population of those counties simultaneously increased.
Below find a chart that compiles health data obtained from the CHSI.
Denton County Texas Key Health Indicators 2000-2008
|Deaths for all causes:||857.7||814.1|
|Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease:||77.5||67.0|
We brought these findings to the attention of Christopher Portier, Director of the National Center for Environmental Health and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. He was quite surprised. It was as though the idea that natural gas development brought public health benefits never occurred to him.
His response was not unique. In fact, the entire conference seemed dominated by a frantic rush to identify negative outcomes. This left the attendees missing some very real, and shared, benefits occurring in communities where natural gas development is taking place.
Most Informing Presentations Seemingly Lost Among Clutter of “Health Effects” Speculation
A large part of the conference involved questions that seemingly had no answers, unless you know where to look. From this perspective, the most informative presentation was provided by Michael Honeycutt, Ph. D, Director of the Toxicology Department of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Dr. Honeycutt was the only panelist with direct regulatory experience and he presented data his department has collected on natural gas development over the past two decades.
His presentation reviewed data from the most extensive natural gas emissions monitoring program in the nation, including data from over 1,126 fixed and mobile monitoring stations and over 2,100 site surveys using emissions finding infrared technology.
These findings showed that as natural gas extraction increased exponentially, harmful air emissions like benzene and other volatile organic compounds decreased. Further, the data showed the area hadn’t seen an increase of pollutants, or public exposure to pollutants at levels that would cause public health concerns, due to natural gas development in nearly twenty years of production from shale resources.
Another informative presentation was provided by Dr. Charles Groat from the University of Texas-Austin. As background, Dr. Groat served as the 13th Director of the U.S. Geological Survey and currently serves as the Director of the Energy and Earth Resources Program at the University of Texas-Austin.
Dr. Groat presented findings from his study which reviewed historical data to determine if hydraulic fracturing has impacted groundwater resources. The study found, “no direct evidence that hydraulic fracturing itself — the practice of fracturing the rocks — had contaminated shallow groundwater.”
In making this determination, the study examined, among other items, the degree to which any documented environmental violations actually impacted human health. In the review, 58% of violations were procedural in nature and had little or no impact on the environment. The most prevalent violations were generally preventable and the study found no evidence of a contamination pathway for the transport of chemicals that would cause public health concerns.
The Difference Between Relying on Experience and Assumptions
One of the more glaring discrepancies of the conference was the pairing of Dr. Honeycutt’s presentation with that of Dr. John Adgate, Chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Colorado School of Public Health (CSPH). Dr. Adgate presented findings from a controversial public health impact assessment based on assumptions, and limited observational data, rather than comprehensive data and experience.
The pairing of Dr. Adgate and Dr. Honeycutt seemed to serve, likely inadvertently, as a summary of the “public health impacts” discussion to date. Studies based on experience show no areas of concern while those focusing on assumptions, and limited data sets, elicit speculation of significant public health impacts.
In this case, the CSPH study found that residents living near natural gas operations were at a greater risk of exposure to harmful air pollutants including benzene, and thus had greater exposure to cancer causing contaminants.
One of the problems with this finding, and the overall assessment, is that it’s based on a study using a limited number of air monitors, all of which were located within a mile of a major interstate. From the study:
CSPH: “The GCPH collected 16 ambient air samples at each cardinal direction along 4well pad perimeters (130 to 500 feet from the well pad center) in rural Garfield County during well completion activities… All five well pads are located in areas with active gas production, approximately one mile from Interstate-70.” (p. 9-10, emphasis added)
The location of the study’s limited sampling data sacrifices the study’s findings. Especially, considering EPA, in its Final Rule to Reduce Mobile Source Air Toxics, notes that “most of the nation’s benzene emissions come from mobile sources. People who live or work near major roads, or spend a large amount of time in vehicles, are likely to have higher exposures and higher risks (emphasis added). Meanwhile, the study’s control samples were three miles removed from that same interstate.
At the same time, the study made unrealistic assumptions on exposure times to the flawed data sets that only exacerbated errors in the study’s conclusions.
Oil and Gas Workers Viewed as “Sentinels” and Key Focus of Discussion
Much attention was rightly paid to the plight of workers in the nation’s oil and natural gas fields. Here too, it seemed alarmism drove the conversation rather than data born from experience and fact. One federal official asserted “that oil and gas drilling in general is one of the most hazardous occupations in the United States. The fatality rate in that industry is multiples of the private sector, upwards of seven times higher.”
That official failed to cite the data they were referencing. This is especially relevant considering data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows the oil and natural gas industry is quite safe. According to the BLS data the oil and natural gas industry is:
The key focus of worker safety however was a presentation by Eric Esswein, senior industrial hygienist at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Esswein highlighted his study which examined exposure of workers on hydraulic fracturing sites to silica pollution. The study, which was widely acclaimed as the largest breakthrough of the proceedings, found workers in multiple states exposed to significant levels of silica above federal standards.
In fact, the findings led one participant to proclaim “I saw a picture from NIOSH that made me think of the Gauley Bridge and the tragedy that happened in our country when we were fiddling around with silica.” The participant was referring to a 1935 incident where hundreds of workers died within months of silica exposure.
Hydraulic fracturing has been widely used since the 1990’s without one known death occurring due to silica exposure. This, however, didn’t keep the media from raising alarms (sub’s reqd.) centering on the finding. The good news, which was not reported, is that technology currently exists to immediately halt this exposure. Specifically through the use of bagger systems which collect errant silica dust before it is able to enter the environment and impact humans.
But more troubling is the idea that, as the CSPH study declared, those living in close proximity to natural gas operations are at a higher risk of developing cancer than the general public.
The CSPH study provides these individuals with a higher rate of developing cancer than workers who are at a natural gas well sites often in excess of over 60 hours a week. This is noticeable in a previous report from the Australian Institute of Petroleum which reviewed 18 years worth of health data and found the cancer rates of oil and gas workers to be no different from the general population.
From the report:
“The age-adjusted death rate in men [in the oil and gas industry] is significantly less than in the general Australian male population. Death rates in all major disease categories – heart disease, cancer, respiratory disease, diseases of the digestive system, and external causes (accidents, violence etc) – are also significantly less than the corresponding rates for the male population.”
“The chance of getting most types of cancer is the same for men in this industry as for all Australians.”
While the report did find elevated cases of mesothelioma, melanoma and prostate cancer among the sample of workers these were attributable to other causes. In regards to mesothelioma, the study found significant numbers of participants had prior exposure to asbestos in previous employment. For melanoma and prostatic cancer the study found, “the rate did not increase with increasing duration of employment or with increasing exposure to hydrocarbons. On this basis and from what is known of the causation of these two cancers, it is therefore unlikely that either is caused by a factor in the workplace in this industry.”
What We Learned- Unbiased Health Professionals Seemingly in Short Supply
Overall, the conference showed there is a good amount of speculation occurring at all levels in regards to the “public health impacts” of natural gas development. What was clear is that decades of experience, data and studies are currently being ignored as a borderline hysterical conversation takes place. Those involved in the discussion are seemingly approaching it at a frantic pace with little forethought into what data already exists to provide clarity to the frightening claims made by a few.
We were alarmed by what we saw and think it’s critical to approach this conversation in a rational manner based on sound science and hard data. This simply can’t be accomplished when groups accept key assumptions as fact when data and experience show a much different reality.
For this reason, and others, we are working to form a nation-wide network of health care professionals who will seek to contribute to this discussion based on the wealth of data and experience that exists. We will highlight the positive benefits of this development, and take a hard look at any potential negative health consequences, but will do so using existing data and sound science while avoiding the politicization of poor study assumptions that lead to good sound bites and bad science.