On-shore hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’, the process of drilling and injecting fluid into the ground at high pressure to fracture shale rocks, is new to the UK. Beate Hildenbrand explores the health issues
The British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS) is running a special session on fracking and the health risks at Safety & Health Expo on 18 June from 12.30-1pm in the BOHS Worker Health Protection Arena http://ubm.io/1gSGd1l
At the British Occupational Hygiene Society’s annual conference in April, the Energy Institute’s (EI) health technical committee and occupational health and hygiene committee presented a workshop exploring the potential health risks to workers in the fracking industry and the UK’s existing regulatory framework with the aim of providing a forum for comments and discussion.
The EI is the chartered professional membership body for the global energy industry and its health committees advise the industry on workplace health hazards and comprise occupational hygienists from a range of energy companies as well as HSE.
Shale gas is a natural gas; a fossil fuel originating from plant, algal or other organic remains and is formed and trapped within shale rocks. Conventional and unconventional gases both have the same primary chemical composition — up to 95 per cent methane (CH4). They mainly differ in the geological and physical properties of the reservoirs in which they are stored rather than the nature of the gas itself.
Conventional gas is stored in high permeability reservoirs below geological traps, such as faults or anticlines.
Unconventional gas is generally stored in very low permeability formations such as shales and tight sandstones. The term unconventional refers to gas contained in a geological formation from which it is difficult to extract without some extraordinary completion, stimulation and development practices, such as hydraulic fracturing.
Shale gas can be produced economically by a combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. By using both techniques, natural gas contained in very low permeability reservoirs can be recovered at flow rates large enough to make production economically viable.
There are a number of potential health hazards related to shale gas production, which need to be considered to ensure the people working on these sites are adequately protected. Many of these hazards are typical of any other oil and gas production operation but some are very specific to shale gas exploration.
A variety of proppants are used during different hydraulic fracturing operations and many are composed of silica and there is a significant risk of worker exposure to crystalline silica, which needs to be controlled.
Chronic inhalation of crystalline silica can lead to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease and Silicosis. Silicosis may also lead to an increased likelihood of lung cancer and tuberculosis.
Field studies conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health at a number of fracking sites in the US identified a widespread lack of effective silica exposure control resulting in the release of a hazard alert in 2012. Since this hazard alert companies in the US and Europe have made technological improvements specifically around proppant handling, which have helped to reduce worker exposure, but the potential risk still remains.
In addition to the silica hazard there is a significant noise exposure potential. To achieve the enormous pressures required for hydraulic fracturing large pumps are required. The running of these pumps can result in noise levels in excess of 100dB. At this level there is a significant risk of hearing damage if appropriate mitigation measures are not put in place to protect workers.
Similar to more conventional oil and gas production there is the potential for exposure to the large variety of chemical additives used as well as naturally occurring radioactive material returning from the reservoir itself. Proactive identification and control of these hazards is essential.
Beate Hildenbrand is technical manager, environment and health at the EI
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