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OSHA Issues Health Alert on Fracking

Thursday, June 28, 2012

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The recent surge in hydraulic fracturing (fracking) activities in shale operations is exposing workers to dangerous levels of silica, federal officials are warning.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have issued a joint hazard alert to employers in hydraulic fracturing operations, warning of the need to take steps to protect workers from silica exposure.

“Hazardous exposures to silica can and must be prevented,” said Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health. “It is important for employers and workers to understand the hazards associated with silica exposure in hydraulic fracturing operations and how to protect workers.”

Health Study

The alert follows a study by NIOSH and industry partners that identified overexposure to silica as a health hazard to workers conducting hydraulic fracturing operations.

Hydraulic fracturing uses large quantities of silica sand, which is the most commonly used proppant to prevent the induced fractures in the rock from closing.

 Workers downwind of sand mover and blender operations had the highest exposures to silica dust.

 Photos: NIOSH

A study of 11 fracking sites found seven primary sources of silica dust exposure during those operations. Workers downwind of sand mover and blender operations had the highest exposures.

Because respirable silica is a hazard common to many industries and industrial processes, NIOSH began in January 2010 to collect data regarding silica exposure at hydraulic fracturing operations.

Working with oil and gas industry partners, the institute sampled the air at 11 sites in five states where hydraulic fracturing operations were taking place.

NIOSH identified seven primary sources of silica dust exposure during those operations. Workers downwind of sand mover and blender operations, especially during hot loading, had the highest exposures.

Health Alert

The alert states that employers must ensure that workers are properly protected from overexposure to silica.

The alert describes how a combination of engineering controls, work practices, worker training, protective equipment and, where feasible, product substitution can protect workers who are exposed to silica.

Engineering controls and work practices provide the best protection, according to OSHA. Transporting, moving and refilling silica sand into and through sand movers, along transfer belts and into blender hoppers can release dust into the air containing up to 99 percent silica that workers breathe.

Workers who breathe silica day after day are at greater risk of developing silicosis, a disease in which lung tissue reacts to trapped silica particles, causing inflammation and scarring, and reducing the lungs' ability to take in oxygen, OSHA reports.

Silica also can cause lung cancer and has been linked to other diseases, such as tuberculosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and kidney and autoimmune disease. OSHA launched a National Emphasis Program on Crystalline Silica in 2008.

‘Practical and Effective’

“The recommendations for protecting workers in the hazard alert are practical, evidence-based and effective solutions to help support the safe growth of American-made energy.” said NIOSH Director John Howard, M.D.

Kenny Jordan, executive director of the Association of Energy Service Companies, also applauded the action, saying: "We are proud of the development of an industry focus group in cooperation with those agencies which will further explore this issue, share best practices and continue to build upon the many engineering controls currently in place and those under development over the last several years.”

The fracking process


Tagged categories: Exposure conditions; Health and safety; NIOSH; Oil and Gas; OSHA; Silica

Comment from Mike McCloud, (6/29/2012, 8:13 AM)

I remember back in the old days when we blasted with silica, and then it got banned, I was always amazed that the material used to sand the roads in the winter came from the same mine as the sandblast grit. I have never seen a cloud of dust bigger than the ones behind a street sweeper in the spring.

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (7/3/2012, 8:26 AM)

I hope the driver has some protection. However, the amount of exposure for passersby is dramatically different than a blaster. It should be something like a 1-5 minute exposure a couple of times a year from the street sweeper (even if you stand in the dust cloud instead of moving!) compared to 8-10 hours a day every working day for a blaster.

Comment from Car F., (7/5/2012, 10:48 AM)

" the old days when we blasted with silica, and then it got banned..." I may be wrong, but using silica sand IN THE OPEN is forbidden not the use silica sand in contained areas, please correct me if I'm wrong Car F

Comment from William Feliciano, (7/5/2012, 3:39 PM)

Many agencies have language in bridge blasting specifications whereby the abrasive used must contain less than 1 percent free silica by weight, or something like that. This is specified even if the work is being done within a containmnent.

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