Fracking and Silica Inhalation Injuries: A Serious Hidden Problem
Recently, the American Industrial Hygiene Association announced that testing conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) suggests that the concentration of silica in the air oil and gas workers breathe often exceeds standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) at oil and gas sites in which hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is used.
The NIOSH researchers measured the levels of silica in the air at 111 personal breathing zone areas at eleven different fracking sites in five states, and their findings were off the charts. In some of these “breathing zones,” workers were exposed to silica levels that were ten times the acceptable exposure level set by OSHA. At levels that high, the half-mask air-purifying respirators that workers are supposed to protect workers from silica dust rendered completely ineffective.
A little more than half of the 111 air samples tested by NIOSH exceeded the Personal Exposure Level (PEL) for silica. One of the fracking sites tested was Eagle Ford, and 50 percent of the samples taken there exceeded OSHA’s PEL.
Because of these disturbing findings, the authors of the study are calling on OSHA and industry groups to develop and implement new standards for the oil and gas industry. They note that there are well-established and effective engineering controls for crystalline silica in a number of other industries, but that such controls for silica used in fracking have only recently begun to emerge, as the understanding of the hazard and the magnitude of the risk of exposure also emerges. They note that even NIOSH was relatively slow to notice the silica exposure hazard at fracking worksites, given that they didn’t issue a Hazard Alert until June 2012.
Silica sand is considered by oil and gas companies engaged in fracking as a critical part of their operations. The silica is mixed with water and chemicals, and that mixture is then injected into shale formations during hydraulic fracturing. The silica acts to keep the fractures open to allow oil or natural gas to flow.
But breathing silica dust has long been known as a major workplace hazard, identified year ago as a major hazard in the mining, manufacturing and construction industries. Exposure to the tiny silica particles is known to sometimes lead to serious diseases, such as silicosis and cancer.
During 2012, nearly 28 million metric tons of silica sand was used in fracking, so it’s unlikely that exposure to silica will cease anytime soon, and oil and gas workers will continue to be exposed. And if workers’ respirators aren’t working properly, they will continue to get sick.
Federal safety authorities have standards for silica exposure, but they are apparently ineffective when it comes to exposure in the oil and gas fracking industries, so they have to do more. Employers should be taking proactive steps to limit workers’ exposure to silica, and not settle for the minimum when it comes to protecting workers. The federal government and the state of Texas need to take steps to reduce exposure, or this will become a huge problem for workers in Texas.