Fracking. The word alone can stir up controversy. The process of extracting natural gas through hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," might summon in your imagination a ravaged environment and damaged communities. Or perhaps you envision a prettier picture – one that involves clean-burning fuel, job growth and affordable energy.

Either way, fracking is no different from any other operation in the oil and gas industry in that it presents its own set of occupational hazards and requires appropriate use of engineering controls, industrial hygiene monitoring and personal protective equipment to ensure workers are not sickened, injured or killed on the job.

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The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) states that fracking "is the process of injecting large volumes of water,  sand, and chemicals into the ground at high pressure to break up shale formation allowing more efficient recovery of oil and gas."  This practice has grown rapidly over the course of the last decade thanks to improved technologies, but it also has fostered debates concerning its environmental, health and safety impact along the way.

A Divisive Practice

Environmental advocates argue fracking contributes to air and water pollution and could have dire health and environmental consequences for nearby communities. Some studies support these claims, including recent research from Cornell University that uncovered dying livestock near fracking sites, which some say could suggest implications for human health.

hydraulic frackingIndustry, meanwhile, stresses that safety is important.

"The oil and natural gas industry's number one priority is safety," says Carlton Carroll, American Petroleum Institute (API) spokesman. "We are proud of our strong safety record but even one incident is too many,  so we update our standards and best practices on an ongoing basis to improve our record and protect our employees and our environment."

The industry also points to the benefits of fracking. In a December 2012 press release, API called the extraction of natural gas from shale "the most important domestic energy development in the last fifty years ... poised to reshape American manufacturing." And Chevron's Web site touts the practice for "providing the United States with reliable, affordable, cleaner and responsibly produced energy. Developing these natural gas resources can help enhance the country's energy security, strengthen local and state economies, and fuel job growth."

Robert Emery, DrPH, a chemical safety expert with the University of Texas (UT) Health Science Center at Houston and a professor at the UT School of Public Health, suggests the oil and gas industry would be well served to take a proactive approach when addressing worker safety concerns in hydraulic fracturing.

"Given the sensitivities environmentally, whether real or perceived, that are associated with fracking, it behooves the industry to maintain both health and safety programs for their employees and the communities they're interacting with," Emery explains.

But some experts argue that workers within the industry are not adequately protected from the dangers they may face.  The most significant and emerging occupational health and safety concern in the fracking industry at this time, according to NIOSH research, is exposure to high levels of crystalline silica.