Doctoral Dissertation Research: Workers' Perceptions of Health-Risk Exposure in an Extractive Industry

Project: Research project

Project Details


Scientists have shown that hydraulic fracturing to extract shale oil and gas in the United States can expose workers to unsafe levels of respirable crystalline silica, a dust that can cause debilitating and deadly lung diseases, raising questions about workers' health and the labor process in this expanding industry. This project examines factors shaping workers' perceptions of their silica exposure as regulatory change unfolds. The study analyzes the ways shale energy workers perceive this occupational health hazard in the context of the gendered social relations and spatio-temporal flexibility that characterizes their work to examine how it intersects with proposed federal regulation that would limit exposure to silica. This study contributes a new perspective to the growing shale gas scholarship, which to date has emphasized perceptions of community economic and environmental impacts. Further, it advances efforts within health geography to examine gendered and geographic processes mediating perceptions of health. Proposed regulations to limit occupational exposure to crystalline silica will impact companies and workers engaged in hydraulic fracturing; thus, this study will provide timely analysis derived collaboratively with stakeholders in government, industry, community organizations, and organized labor and will result in reports, and training and awareness materials related to crystalline silica in hydraulic fracturing operations.

This project analyzes processes that shape workers' health perception of silica exposure in the shale gas industry using theoretical tools developed in feminist and health geography to evaluate current regulatory proposals. It aims to understand how regulatory and industry discourses about workers' silica exposure affect how workers perceive silica exposure and practice mitigation, how the labor process affects how workers perceive silica exposure and practice mitigation and finally, how social relations outside of work, in particular those of the family, affect how workers perceive silica exposure and practice mitigation. Conducted primarily from Williamsport, Pennsylvania, a hub of drilling activity in the Marcellus Shale region, this research will be completed through semi-structured interviews with workers, family members, and government and industry representatives, in addition to institutional analysis, and participant observation. These methods will build upon preliminary research that has identified contradictions among regulatory efforts to establish safe and healthy workplace practices, normalized cultural attitudes about workplace health and safety, and the pressures and obligations felt by workers engaged in extractive work. The feminist methodological approach taken by this project advances qualitative, and specifically ethnographic research, as its focus on everyday experience makes it poised to examine contradictions between structural norms and individuals' identities that, in some instances, produce greater risk to individuals.

Effective start/end date8/1/143/31/17


  • National Science Foundation: $11,012.00


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