Fracking workers exposed: crystalline silica

May 15, 2012

May 15, 2012

OSHA fracking safety

Researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health — NIOSH — have found that respirable crystalline silica is a hazard for workers engaged in hydraulic fracturing operations.  This means fracking has another regulatory Don Quixote flying at its drills. 

And this time it's OSHA.

On April 30, NIOSH researchers presented preliminary data (PDF*) which suggest that gas and oil workers may be exposed to dangerously high levels of respirable crystalline silica while performing hydraulic fracturing operations. The researchers found that nearly half (47%) of the workers sampled were exposed to levels of silica above OSHA's permissible exposure limits.  That's almost 80% of those sampled being exposed above NIOSH's recommended exposure limits.

The findings were reported by Eric Esswein during a meeting of the Institute of Medicine on The Health Impact Assessment of New Energy Sources: Shale Gas Extraction. The researchers identified seven primary dust generation points, which include refilling/hot loading and release from top hatches, T-belt operations, and the "dragon's tail." Esswein also discussed possible means of prevention through design.

Inhalation of respirable crystalline silica particles has long been known to cause silicosis, a disabling and sometimes fatal lung disease. For more information, visit OSHA's Safety and Health Topics page on Crystalline Silica or take a look at the OSHA crystalline silica fact sheet.

About crystalline silica exposure

Workers are exposed to crystalline silica dust in general industry, energy, construction, and maritime industries. Industries that could be particularly affected by a standard for crystalline silica include: Foundries, industries that have abrasive blasting operations, paint manufacture, glass and concrete product manufacture, brick making, china and pottery manufacture, manufacture of plumbing fixtures, and many construction activities including highway repair, masonry, concrete work, rock drilling, and tuckpointing.

The seriousness of the health hazards associated with silica exposure is demonstrated by the fatalities and disabling illnesses that continue to occur. In 2005, the most recent year for which data is available, silicosis was identified on 161 death certificates as an underlying or contributing cause of death. It is likely that many more cases have occurred where silicosis went undetected.

In addition, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has designated crystalline silica as carcinogenic to humans, and the National Toxicology Program has concluded that respirable crystalline silica is a known human carcinogen. Exposure to crystalline silica has also been associated with an increased risk of developing tuberculosis and other nonmalignant respiratory diseases, as well as renal and autoimmune diseases. Exposure studies and OSHA enforcement data indicate that some workers continue to be exposed to levels of crystalline silica far in excess of current exposure limits. Congress has included compensation of silicosis victims on Federal nuclear testing sites in the Energy Employees' Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act of 2000. The particular need for the Agency to modernize its exposure limits for construction and shipyard workers, and to address some specific issues that will need to be resolved to propose a comprehensive standard.

Double check your company safety data, files and reporting on crystalline silica.

For more information visit the OSHA page: