(Canadian OH&S News)
Unifor, the country’s newest union, is calling for a countrywide moratorium on all new oil and gas hydraulic fracturing. The process, known as “fracking,” involves injecting chemicals under high pressure into drilled wells to fracture geological formations below and allow for the release of larger quantities of both crude oil and natural gas.
The union, which represents more than 300,000 workers in total and about 20,000 in the energy sector, is raising concerns over the safety and environmental risks associated with fracking as well as the lack of informed consent by First Nations about fracking activities on traditional lands. Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador have already introduced moratoriums on fracking, Unifor said in a release, and Nova Scotia has banned fracking while it undertakes a review of the process.
“We have a number of concerns on the worker safety front, in addition to concerns regarding the risks to public health and the environment, groundwater and surface water contamination, for starters,” Unifor Atlantic director Lana Payne told COHSN, arguing that unconventional fracking is relatively new in Canada, but “is quickly taking on the characteristics of a gold-rush like phenomena.
“Our past experience with worker health and safety is that often in these kinds of gold rush-type industries, worker safety is not exactly at the top of the list,” she contended. “Rather, it is far after the fact, when rules or laws are put in place around exposures and risks and hazards or acceptable standards.”
Studies show silica risks from fracking
Payne noted that recent field studies from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in the United States showed that workers may be exposed to dust with high levels of respirable crystalline silica during hydraulic fracturing. Besides the chemicals used in the fracking process, Payne said, hydraulic fracturing sand contains up to 99 per cent silica.
“We know from the mining industry that exposure to silica, the breathing of it into your lungs, can cause silicosis and lung cancer,” she said, adding that Dr. Theo Colborn, a U.S.-based scientist focused on chemicals that interfere with development and function, has noted that there are over 900 chemicals used in the fracking process and more than 80 per cent of them have respiratory effects. “The big issue here is there are still a lot of unknowns in what is not a very regulated industry,” Payne said.
In a resolution unanimously passed by the 25-person Unifor national executive board, the union said that the moratorium “should stay in place until such time as the safety and environmental risks associated with fracking have been adequately addressed, and until First Nations communities have given full informed consent for fracking activity on their traditional lands.”
Payne said that what is needed is more and proper public consultation, engagement and study. “We cannot merely rely on what the energy companies say about the health and environmental impacts of unconventional fracking,” she said, noting that there are reasons why jurisdictions like Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec, Vermont and New York State have called for reviews or moratoriums.
“They are all concerned that we do not have enough information about the impacts this industry will have on the environment and on worker safety,” Payne said. “It is a prudent approach to take, as we all should be seeking to find a balance between economic development and worker safety and environmental protection. These things should not be one or the other.”