An old hazard alert is resurfacing in the oil and gas industry, one that warns the massive amounts of sand used during hydraulic fracturing may pose a health risk for workers.
The alert, issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, warns of prolonged exposure to dust with high levels of breathable crystalline silica. Crystalline silica can cause lung disease or lung cancer and has been linked to other conditions such as tuberculosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and kidney and autoimmune disease, according to the alert on OSHA’s website.
Silica: What is it?
Crystalline silica is a common mineral found in the Earth’s crust, most commonly found as sand, used to make everyday products such as concrete, brick and glass, according to OSHA. Repairable silica is a portion of the crystalline silica small enough to get into the gas-exchange regions of the lungs if inhaled. Normally, those particles have diameters smaller than 10 micrometers.
Breathing silica can cause lung cancer or the lung disease silicosis. Silica also has been linked to other diseases including tuberculosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, kidney disease and autoimmune disease.
The alert first was issued in June 2012, but the research behind it was just published in the July issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, said Elizabeth T. Smith, a partner with the Columbus-based law firm Vorys. Vorys published a memo this week to make sure its clients are aware of the situation and any steps they should be taking to minimize silica risks, Smith said.
“I don’t think there’s a need to sound any kind of panic bell or anything like that,” she said. “It’s really meant to be informative and make sure everyone is keeping up to speed on everything they need to be doing, particularly when it comes to government regulations and worker safety.”
The alert was issued as part of an OSHA/NIOSH study on fracking. With cooperation from oil and gas partners, researchers collected 116 air samples from 11 fracking sites in five states — Arkansas, Colorado, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Texas, according to OSHA’s website. Of the 116 samples:
• 47 percent showed silica exposures greater than OSHA’s permissible exposure limit.
• 79 percent showed silica exposures greater than the NIOSH recommended exposure level.
• 9 percent showed silica exposures at least 10 times OSHA’s permissible exposure limit, with one sample more than 25 times the limit.
• 31 percent showed silica exposures at least 10 times the NIOSH recommended limit, with one sample more than 100 times the limit.
Of the two standards, the NIOSH standard is the more stringent. However, OSHA’s is the legally enforceable limit, while NIOSH’s is merely a recommendation for employers.
At the same time, OSHA and NIOSH recommend employers work to keep exposures below the NIOSH limit, stating in the hazard alert that many OSHA permitted exposure levels “are outdated and inadequate measures of worker safety.”
Silica dust is introduced to drilling sites during hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, when companies blast millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals deep into the earth to free natural gas to rise to the surface. That fracking mixture is about 90 percent water, 9 percent sand and 1 percent chemicals, according to OSHA. The sand used often is up to 99 percent silica, and workers can be exposed when the sand is being moved on the drill site.
OSHA recommends several practices for employers with high silica levels, including capping unused ports on sand movers, reducing the drop height on sand transfer belts, limiting the number of workers in high-silica areas and the time they spend there, and applying freshwater to the well site and nearby roads to reduce dust.
OSHA also suggests providing respiratory equipment for workers, monitoring air quality and providing medical monitoring for workers exposed to silica.
For many companies, those are steps they’re already taking, many before the alert even came out initially, said Shawn Bennett, Energy In Depth Ohio spokesman. Oil and gas companies worked closely with OSHA on the silica study, and they continue to work together to implement best practices for safety, he said.
“Each company kind of takes a different approach, but as this came out (in 2012), you saw them really ramping up and remedying the issue and making sure” it was safe, Bennett said. “It’s something the industry works closely with OSHA on. They want to make sure their employees are safe.”
For more information or to read the full hazard alert, visit osha.gov/ooc/alerts-letters.html.