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Hazard Alert Issued for Silica Exposure in Fracking

PHOTO: Silica dust by worker conducting sand transfer operations. Photo credit: NIOSH
PHOTO: Silica dust by worker conducting sand transfer operations. Photo credit: NIOSH
June 26, 2012

CASPER, Wyo. - A federal study of the use of silica in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in oil and gas fields found that workers are sometimes overexposed to silica dust, which can lead to silicosis. It's a disease that reduces the lungs' ability to take in oxygen. Silica can also cause lung cancer, according to a new Hazard Alert issued by OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

Dr. David Michaels, an epidemiologist who is assistant secretary of labor at OSHA, says hazardous silica dust exposure has to be prevented.

"There are ways to control exposure, to limit the amount of silica that gets in the air in fracking operations, so workers don't breathe this dangerous dust."

Workers can be protected to some extent by wearing respirators, but OSHA notes that respirators can't block 100 percent of the dust when levels are high.

John Robitaille, vice president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, says that, as outlined in the alert, there are lots of little things companies can do to reduce exposure, such as watering down the site and reducing the drop height when the silica sand is unloaded.

He describes education as part of his organization's job, now that the alert has been published.

"Then we can start to get the word out to our folks; perhaps our state OSHA will take the reins and write a rule for us, or something along those lines."

A state OSHA spokesman says no new rules are needed.

Robitaille adds that several companies are looking at doing away with silica, using ceramics instead.

Dan Neal, executive director of the Equality State Policy Center, says education of workers and companies is urgent, and employees need to know they have the right to speak up if they're concerned, and understand how to file a complaint.

"We think it's really important that workers around Wyoming - and really, across the country - understand that this exposure hazard exists, and that they should be asking their employers to help them reduce this exposure risk."

Dr. Michaels says federal agencies worked with the oil and gas industry - and unions - in issuing the alert.

The alert is at 1.usa.gov/LwoE5l.

Deb Courson Smith, Public News Service - WY