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 – 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.