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OSHA, NIOSH, Industry Address Silica Exposure in Fracking

Recognizing that all fracking operations are not alike, LIUNA supports sound and worker-safe hydraulic fracking and believes that strong, effective labor-management collaboration is the key to attaining this high standard.

To this end, the LHSFNA welcomes a new health hazard alert from OSHA. The alert, Worker Exposure to Silica During Hydraulic Fracturing, describes how a combination of engineering controls, work practices, protective equipment and product substitution, along with worker training, can protect workers in this rapidly developing industry. The danger arises because silica sand is a major ingredient in the “mud” that gas extractors blast into layers of shale, deep in the ground, to release natural gas pockets trapped within.

The alert lists a number of immediate actions that operators can take to minimize risks. These include:

  • Cap all unused fill ports on sand movers.
  • Reduce drop heights of sand during its movements.
  • Limit the number of workers and time spent in dusty areas of operations.
  • Apply fresh water to roads and area around well site.

It also identifies a number of areas for which better engineering controls should be developed and implemented.

Respirators should be supplied to workers whose overexposure cannot be eliminated.

The alert also notes that employers must provide appropriate training and information to workers about silica and other health hazards they may face at work.

Finally, the alert recommends that employers establish medical monitoring programs for workers who are exposed to respirable silica.

The alert resulted from a cooperative effort, begun in January 2010, to collect data regarding silica exposure at hydraulic fracturing operations. Oil and natural gas partners worked with NIOSH to sample air at 11 sites in five states where fracking operations were in progress. The data found that transporting, moving and refilling sand into and through sand movers and along transfer belts into blender hoppers can release dust into the air that is 99 percent silica. When inhaled by nearby workers, this dust can raise their risk of developing respirable illness, including silicosis. Overexposure can also increase the risk of tuberculosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and kidney and autoimmune disease.

Although not specific to fracking, the LHSFNA has a number of publications that deal with the hazards of silica and how best to protect against its dangers. These are available through the Fund’s online catalogue.

[Steve Clark]

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