The UK’s health and safety watchdog is facing questions from MPs over the way it monitored risks from silica sand at Cuadrilla’s fracking site.
The House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee, which oversees the Health and Safety Executive, is seeking answers after an 18-month investigation reported shortcomings in regulation of the Preston New Road site, near Blackpool.
Fracking uses silica sand as a proppant to hold open fractures in shale rock and allow the release of gas into a borehole. Dust from the sand, known as Respirable Crystalline Silica (RCS), can be fine enough to reach deep inside the lungs. With significant exposure, RCS can cause silicosis and lung cancer.
The investigation by Dr Barbara Kneale, a consultant in occupational medicine, and Dennis May, an industrial health and safety practitioner, revealed that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE):
- Carried out no site inspections during fracking at Preston New Road, despite a previous commitment to do so
- Did not report on the management of silica sand after other site inspections
- Did not review the risk of exposure to RCS because it had “finite resources” and RCS was not regarded as “major accident hazard potential”
In a letter published online yesterday, the committee’s chair, Stephen Timms, asked the HSE chief executive, Sarah Albon, to respond within a fortnight.
He asked Ms Albon what consideration the HSE had given to the risks faced by site workers exposed to RCS at Preston New Road and whether the regulator would review its approach to RCS at other fracking sites in future.
A spokesperson for the HSE said:
“We can confirm that a response to the letter from Stephen Timms MP to our CEO is being prepared. It would not be appropriate to comment until this has been issued.”
Dr Kneale and Mr May, who sent a report of their investigation to the committee in November last year, said:
“We welcome the committee’s questions to Sarah Albon and look forward to the HSE’s response.”
Their investigation findings raise questions about the wider management of the UK onshore oil and gas industry, which involves multiple organisations and regulations. Government guidance says county councils, which decide planning applications for onshore oil and gas sites, should assume that other regulatory regimes, like health and safety, will operate effectively.
Commitment on silica sand
As far back as 2014, the HSE gave an undertaking to Lancashire County Council that it would monitor the risk of silica at shale gas sites. In a response to Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road planning application, the HSE said it was aware of an official warning in the US and would:
“look at how the well operator manages the risk of exposure to silica”.
Dr Kneale and Mr May began their investigation into regulation at Preston New Road in August 2018 when the HSE confirmed that it was aware of the risks of RCS exposure. It said in an email to Dr Kneale:
“Using sealed silos on the site is a good engineering control which can help ensure that workers are not exposed to sand that could contain RCS. Cuadrilla have adopted this technique of using sealed transport and storage, and vacuum mixing equipment which prevents dust reaching the atmosphere. HSE expect that similar techniques to limit exposure will be used on other oil and gas wells where hydraulic fracturing is planned.”
At this point, Cuadrilla was preparing for the first frack at Preston New Road. Fracking began on 15 October 2018 and ended on 17 December 2018.
For fracking on the second well, from 15-23 August 2019, Cuadrilla changed the arrangements for managing silica sand. Images from citizen monitors showed the site stored sand in bulk bags, rather than sealed silos. A response to a freedom of information request revealed there was no correspondence about this change between Cuadrilla and the HSE.
After receiving concerns from Dr Kneale and Mr May, the HSE said the switch to bulk bags was acceptable and the operation “broadly aligned” with guidance after extra protections had been added.
It also said Cuadrilla received a verbal warning. The company had not been able to confirm that respiratory protective equipment had been tested for face-fitting. It was instructed to ensure the test happened in future.
Inspections during fracking
The HSE made a commitment in a Working Together Agreement in 2012 to inspect new and first-time shale gas operations with the Environment Agency (EA). These joint inspections would be carried out at key stages, including main hydraulic fractures.
Preston New Road saw the first UK frack since the signing of the HSE-EA agreement and the first ever UK frack of a horizontal shale gas well. But according to the response to another freedom of information request, the HSE did not meet its commitment on joint visits during fracking.
The FOI response confirmed that the HSE reported on inspection visits on 3 May 2017, 19 April 2018, 3 and 4 October 2018 and 25 July 2019.
The report for the October 2018 inspection, nearly a fortnight before the first fracks began, did not refer to RCS or silica sand.
Nor did the report of the 25 July 2019 inspection, three weeks before fracking began on the second well, with new arrangements for silica sand. The July 2019 report did mention the use of urine colour charts so that workers could assess their personal hydration levels and the risk of Legionella from emergency showers.
The HSE later told Dr Kneale and Mr May:
“Your summary that the control of RCS was not inspected is correct.
“The focus of the July 2019 inspection was on activities with a major accident hazard potential when fracking operations commenced. At that time, hydraulic fracturing was due to commence a few weeks after that visit. As exposure to RCS does not have major accident hazard potential, the control of RCS was therefore not inspected.
“This is in line with the Onshore Oil and Gas Sector Strategy, which sets out how HSE will use its finite resources in a major accident hazard environment, given that HSE cannot be present at all major accident hazard sites when operational activities are undertaken. It is therefore appropriate that the inspection did not review RCS.”
The HSE later explained why it had not inquired into why the July 2019 inspection did not include RCS. It said Dr Kneale and Mr May’s complaint had been made three weeks after the end of fracking operations at Preston New Road, when there was no possibility of the operation resuming in the immediate future.
But the HSE said a commitment had been made to inspect RCS control measures if fracking restarted at Preston New Road in future.
Failures in handling complaint
In July 2020, the HSE admitted that it had failed to follow its own guidelines in the way it dealt with Dr Kneale and Mr May’s concerns.
They first complained to the HSE in September 2019 about the control of RCS at Preston New Road.
More than a month later, the HSE said an investigation was underway. On 7 February 2020, the HSE said it had discussed the issue with Cuadrilla and the fracking services company, Schlumberger.
In a letter on 28 February 2020, the HSE set out the differences between the sand handling systems during the two fracks and thanked Dr Kneale and Mr May for their concerns.
The pair appealed in May 2020 and finally received an apology from the HSE at the end of July 2020. The HSE accepted it had failed to:
- communicate appropriately and without prompting
- manage the investigation into the original complaint
- explain its decisions
The Work and Pensions Committee asked Sarah Albon to reply to its questions by Thursday 8 April 2021.
We are seeking comments from people affected by the Preston New Road site.