Oil Workers Face Risks in the Air They Breathe
It’s early morning in Gonzales County, 75 miles east of San Antonio.
It’s foggy and a bit hard to see driving down a gravel road that runs between cattle ranches.
Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere appears a brand new rail yard.
Dozens of rail cars sit on rows of newly-laid tracks.
And rising next to them are several metallic pyramids several stories tall.
But they’re not full of grain or animal feed; they hold tons of sand. It arrives by rail to feed the drilling industry that’s now finding more oil and gas here than expected.
The sand is used in hydraulic fracturing. But now it’s a cause for concern, and the target of a rare federal hazard alert, one of a number of airborne hazards that may be endangering thousands of oil field workers.
Sand is made of silica, which is nasty stuff if you breathe it.
“Many of the workers at the drill site can be exposed to silica,” said Robert Emery, an expert on rig worker health risks at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. “It’s very dusty. Short-term exposures at a high enough level can result in permanent damage.”
Here’s what happens: Each fracked well shoots tons of sand down the hole at high pressure, fracturing the shale rock formations thousands of feet underground, freeing oil and gas to escape.
Moving all that sand from trains to trucks to tanks at the well site can create clouds of silica dust.
Concerned over that potential for lung damage, government investigators took air samples at drill sites in Texas and other states where fracking is surging.
The results were startling. All the sites were exceeding government safety standards, in some cases so badly the researchers said that workers wouldn’t be safe even if they wore masks. In June, the government issued the hazard alert.
The industry says it’s on it.
“We’re getting the word out anyway we can,” said Rick Ingram of oil giant BP, who works with the government to develop rig safety programs. “We’re really working hard to help engineer out the hazard and protect those workers.”
Ingram says the hazard developed from the sheer volume of fracking, but there will be debate over whether the industry should have realized the risks sooner, because extracting oil and gas has always been dangerous work.
Oilfield worker Robert Colin paints oil storage tanks. Attached to the chest pocket of his coveralls is what looks like a bright yellow pager.
It’s a hydrogen sulfide monitor. That’s a gas that poses a danger around drilling rigs and storage tanks.
“It’ll start beeping if the level’s too high,” Colin said. “Then we have to evacuate the area. It feels like we’re working in a refinery.”
Partly because of changes in drilling technology, workers are now exposed to chemical hazards in addition to the traditional threats like getting hit by heavy equipment.
“We’ve had all those types of calls to the rigs,” said paramedic Allen Linebrink. He recounted how a couple of months ago they had to call a helicopter to rush two badly injured workers to a hospital in San Antonio.
“I believe they were cleaning a tank of some type and there was an ignition source,” Linebrink said.
That accident is just one of many that have raised concerns that the surge in oil and gas production, while great for the economy, is putting more workers at risk in places like Gonzales County.