New OSHA Fracking Silica Standards Put Employers on Notice
The oil and gas hydraulic fracturing (fracking) boom in Texas and elsewhere has led to a proliferation in the use of silica sand, which is commonly used with water to break up the shale underground and release the oil or gas. And because of serious health concerns over workers breathing in silica, this increased use has sparked concern on the part of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
The problem is being made worse by the fact that drilling companies have discovered that using more silica sand makes the fracking process more efficient, and that places workers at greater risk. According to at least one report, a year ago fracking companies used about 2,500 tons of sand per well, but new fracking techniques have pushed that number up to as much as 8,000 tons of sand per well. That amount of sand would fill about 80 rail cars. It is estimated producers will have used nearly five million tons – or nearly 100 billion pounds – of sand by the end of this year, which represents a 30 percent increase from 2013, and about 50 percent more sand than was estimated to be used this year.
As the use of silica sand in fracking grows, so does the level of concern regarding the negative health effects on workers. In 2012, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) issued a report identifying airborne silica exposure as a health hazard for fracking workers. Following that, OSHA announced a proposed rule in August 2013 aimed at reducing silica exposure, by severely limiting worker silica exposure. That rule took effect a few months ago.
Included in the new rule are requirements that employers limit access to areas with high airborne silica levels and implement specific exposure reduction methods where practical, such as fully enclosing an operation and keeping workers outside a high-exposure area, wetting down work areas to prevent silica dust from becoming airborne, or using a vacuum to collect the dust before it becomes airborne.
Employers are also now required to monitor the health of workers exposed to high silica levels by providing them with regular medical exams, and they must also provide training to those same workers.
Workers who breathe in large amounts of silica can develop silicosis, which can lead to a number of serious lung ailments, including tuberculosis or lung cancer. According to the CDC, hundreds die from silicosis every year. Among the early symptoms of the disease can include a chronic cough, fever and shortness of breath. In the late stages, silicosis can feature a worsening of those symptoms, as well as chronic fatigue, chest pain, serious weight loss and respiratory failure. The disease is incurable, and usually requires many years of intense and expensive medical treatment. In some extreme cases, a lung transplant may be necessary.
It’s a good thing government officials are taking the health effects of silica exposure seriously, and are taking steps to mitigate the potential damage. In some cases, however, it may be too little, too late. If you or a loved one has become ill or died from an illness that may be tied to an oil or gas fracking site, please contact the Hill Law Firm today, so that we can put our knowledge and experience to work, and help you protect your rights.