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OSHA Hearing Examines Silica Dust Risks in Fracking

PHOTO: Construction and hydraulic fracturing are industries where workers are exposed to silica dust. OSHA is proposing rules to minimize exposure, since the dust is linked to chronic respiratory illnesses and deaths. Photo credit: New Jersey Dept. of Health
PHOTO: Construction and hydraulic fracturing are industries where workers are exposed to silica dust. OSHA is proposing rules to minimize exposure, since the dust is linked to chronic respiratory illnesses and deaths. Photo credit: New Jersey Dept. of Health
April 14, 2014

FRANKFORT, Ky. - OSHA has wrapped up nearly three weeks of hearings on a proposed rule to limit workers' exposure to damaging silica dust. Hydraulic fracturing was one of the industries where silica-dust exposures were examined, along with general construction, masonry and foundries. Silica dust is connected to various respiratory illnesses and to silicosis, an incurable chronic lung disease.

According to Celeste Monforton, Professorial Lecturer at George Washington University School of Public Health, in her testimony, safety regulations were first recommended back in 1974, and even the rule now under discussion will take up to two years to be put in place.

"So, it's really a national disgrace that we allow exposures to silica dust that are so high," she declared.

Monforton added that those most at risk from silica-dust exposure are also the most vulnerable: immigrants, people who don't speak English, and contract workers.

Industry groups testified against the rule, saying that deaths from silicosis have declined. Monforton however said it's estimated that the rule would save 700 lives a year.

Peter Dooley, health and safety project consultant at the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, testified that workers often don't know that the dust they're inhaling can cause lifelong disabilities.

"It's not like asbestos and lead hazards; this is a hazard that's not well-known," he said.

Dan Neal, executive director of Wyoming's Equality State Policy Center, spoke to the hearing in favor of the rule, saying history shows that industries won't meet limits on their own, conduct monitoring, offer medical surveillance, or provide training.

Of silica dust, he said: "It leads to long-term complications that impair someone's breathing, lung cancer and kidney problems, among many other related diseases. It's very important for workers to know that they've got to protect themselves, and that they've got a right to protect themselves."

Exposure limits would mean that businesses would have to use various methods to reduce dust at work sites, including vacuum systems or protective respirators for workers.

The proposal would limit silica dust that could be breathed in by workers to 50 micrograms of silica dust per cubic meter of air space. The long-standing existing rule has a much higher limit, at 10 milligrams per cubic meter.

Proposed silica dust exposure rule details are at OSHA.gov.

Greg Stotelmyer , Public News Service - KY