Hydrofracking Mining Technique Comes With Unique Workers’ Compensation Issues

Hydraulic fracturing, also referred to as “hydrofracking” or simply “fracking,” is a new, and controversial, mining technique that is sweeping the nation and the world. Hydrofracking allows mining companies to tap previously inaccessible deposits of resources locked deep within the earth.

Fracking has many other benefits compared to more traditional extraction methods, including cost-effectiveness and energy efficiency. But, potential environmental dangers have kept many from jumping on the hydraulic fracturing bandwagon. As with all types of mining activity, hydrofracking can be hazardous to the workers tasked with maintaining and operating drilling rigs. The risk to workers, however, is often overshadowed by the wider debate surrounding hydrofracking’s environmental impacts. While a New York workers’ compensation attorney is the best resource for injured hydraulic fracturing employees in the Northeast, a basic understanding of the intersection between fracking and worker injury can benefit anyone in a prime drilling region.

What Is Hydraulic Fracturing?

Fracking is the creation of fissures, or fractures, in subterranean geological formations. In the energy industry, these fractures are typically made in deep shale formations to allow natural gas or oil to flow and be collected. Several large deep shale formations exist in the United States; one of the largest is the Marcellus Shale, a massive black shale formation that extends underground through parts of New York, Pennsylvania and other Northeastern states.

In total, the Marcellus Shale is estimated to contain an astonishing 489 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (to put this in perspective, New York State consumes just over 1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in a typical year). After an initial wellbore is drilled into a deep shale repository, fracturing fluid under high pressure is pumped underground. This liquid flows into miniscule cavities in the shale formation, splitting and cracking surrounding rock with terrible force.

As fissures are created, sand or other additives in the fracturing fluid hold the cracks open, allowing gas and oil to flow and be extracted. The fracturing process occurs far from the sight of any human observer: the average depth of a U.S. hydrofracking well is almost one and a half miles. Although harmless sand and water are the chief components of fracturing fluid, the approximately two percent of the fluid that is composed of chemical additives is enough to raise some environmentalists’ ire. Hazardous chemicals allegedly used by drilling companies in some fracturing fluid formulas include benzene, formaldehyde and hydrochloric acid.

Drilling company representatives insist that any fracturing fluid that is not recovered is locked deep underground, separated from freshwater aquifers by thousands of feet of impenetrable bedrock. Yet, extractors’ assurances, government regulations and the existent body of scientific reserve have proven inadequate to quell the spreading trepidation about hydrofracking’s potential impact on drinking water reserves. A handful of foreign nations, including France, have banned hydraulic fracturing altogether.

Dangers to Workers Associated With Fracking

Mining has always been a dangerous occupation. Even though Hydraulic fracturing has been touted as a safer extraction method than other processes, there are still a number of threats to drilling company employees. Like any type of mining operation, hydrofracking involves the use of heavy, powerful equipment. When working with machinery capable of piercing thousands of feet of solid rock, crushed limbs, back injuries, broken bones, or even death are distinct possibilities given the slightest safety oversight. The chemicals used in fracking fluid, although perhaps safer when diluted with water and entombed in solid rock thousands of feet below the earth’s surface, present more acute risks to workers who must handle them in pure forms.

Over time, job site exposure to radioactive or carcinogenic fracking fluid components can lead to serious work-related illnesses. In the short term, chemical burns, fires or accidental poisoning can all be threats on the average hydrofracking job site. Finally, transportation dangers are a common, but easily overlooked peril for employees at hydrofracking mines. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the period between 2003 and 2006, motor vehicle crashes were responsible for nearly a third of the fatal injuries suffered by oil and natural gas extraction workers.

Given that vehicles used in oil and natural gas extraction are exempt from certain Department of Transportation hours-of-service restrictions for commercial drivers, driver fatigue can be particularly troublesome. And, as developers rush to exploit resources while drilling is profitable, a sense of urgency that some would say borders on carelessness permeates many mining camps, adding to the danger. To put the explosion of hydrofracking activity in context, only 11 drilling permits were issued in the Marcellus Shale region in 2005; by 2010, the number had skyrocketed to 3,403.

Legal Options for Injured Workers

Usually, the sole avenue for recovery against a worker’s employer for any on-the-job injury or illness is workers’ compensation. Fault is typically not an issue in workers’ compensation claims (so even those workers’ hurt due to their own negligence may receive benefits), but only medical expenses and a certain percentage of lost wages are recoverable. However, for many of those injured in a hydrofracking accident, a personal injury claim may also be a possibility.

When partial fault for an injury lies with some third party other than a worker’s employer (an onsite contractor, the manufacturer of a faulty piece of mining equipment or a negligent landowner, for example), additional compensation may be available for pain and suffering and the full measure of wages lost due to an inability to work. If you or a loved one has been involved in an accident at a hydrofracking site, it is important to protect your right to workers’ compensation benefits and other forms of recovery. Contact a personal injury lawyer with experience in workers’ compensation claims to ensure you receive the full amount you deserve.

For over 40 years, David H. Perecman has distinguished himself as one of the leading personal injury lawyers in New York City, championing all types of personal injury cases including construction accidents, premises accidents, automobile accidents, and medical malpractice, along with employment discrimination, false arrest, and civil rights cases.