Oil and natural gas hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has been around for a long time. However, over the past 10 years, fracking has become much more prevalent. The process involves using water and sand at high pressures in order to fracture shale and allow the oil and gas to enter the well.
Workers in this industry may be exposed to what’s called respirable crystalline silica. This has been the focus of a study conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The NIOSH study has identified seven primary sources of silica dust:
- dust ejected from access ports on top of sand movers during hot loading (refilling while machines are running);
- dust from open side fill ports on sand movers while they are refilled;
- dust stirred up by vehicle traffic at the worksite;
- dust from transfer belts under sand movers;
- dust generated as sand drops into the blender hopper and transfer belts;
- dust from the operation of transfer belts between sand movers and blenders; and
- dust released from the end of sand transfer belts.
Have workers been overexposed to dangerous levels of silica while fracking?
NIOSHA conducted studies and took samples from well work sites where fracking was being conducted in Arkansas, Colorado, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Texas. Many of the samples taken at these well sites showed workers were exposed to levels of silica in excess of occupational safety limits. Some of the measured silica dust exposure levels were in excess of 25 or 100 times what OSHA or NIOSH considers safe.
Certain safety measures should be in place at these sites. In some conditions, half-face respirators are adequate protection. However, according to OSHA standards, “half-face respirators are not protective for silica levels over 10 times the exposure limit.”
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Is it true that silica may kill you?
The short answer is yes, silica may kill you if you develop an associated health condition. Overexposure to silica, which comprises as much as 99 percent of fracking sand, can be deadly. Overexposure to silica may cause or contribute to development of serious health conditions like:
- lung cancer;
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease;
- kidney disease;
- autoimmune disease; and
- silicosis lung disease.
There are three types of silicosis:
- chronic: the most common, which occurs after 10 or more years of low level silica exposure;
- accelerated: occurring five to 10 years after higher levels of silica exposure; and
- acute: occurring weeks or months after very high levels of silica exposure.
The third type of silicosis can be fatal and progresses rapidly from the time high levels of silica exposure occur. According to the American Lung Association, “silicosis is chronic and cannot be cured.”
Proper use of approved safety equipment is very important to prevent overexposure to silica dust. If you feel that you are in danger of overexposure, you should communicate your concerns to your employer.
However, in some cases, you may need to seek the advice of an attorney who can help ensure your safety or seek compensation. Attorney David Bressman is available for free consultations. If you have any questions related to silica dust exposure and your legal options to recover compensation for your damages, call (614) 538-1116.