OSHA, NIOSH issue fracking health alert

Michael P. Tremoglie Jun. 25, 2012, 8:48am

WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) - The Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health issued a hazard alert Thursday about fracking worker safety.

The AFL-CIO sent a May 22 letter to both OSHA and NIOSH about fracking worker safety. The hazard alert is designed to ensure that hydraulic fracturing employers implement policies and procedures to protect workers from silica exposure.

OSHA and NIOSH took this step, according to the announcement, in conjunction with the industry. The hazard alert follows the study by NIOSH referenced in the AFL-CIO letter reported on in Legal Newsline last month. The study ascertained that overexposure to silica as a health hazard to workers conducting hydraulic fracturing operations.

The OSHA/NIOSH notice describes how "engineering controls, work practices, protective equipment and product substitution, where feasible, along with worker training, can protect workers who are exposed to silica."

According to the communique, engineering controls and work practices are the ultimate worker safeguard. According to the alert, transporting, moving and refilling silica sand into and through sand movers and along transfer belts into blender hoppers can release dust, causing air containing up to 99 percent silica that workers breathe.

It was noted that respirable silica is a hazard common to many industries and industrial processes. But because large quantities of silica sand are used during hydraulic fracturing, NIOSH began collecting data in January 2010 regarding the degree to which workers were exposed to silica at hydraulic fracturing sites.

NIOSH worked in cooperation with oil and gas industry partners to sample 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 fracturing operations and found that workers downwind of sand mover and blender operations, especially during hot loading, had the highest silica exposures.

"We applaud the efforts of the NIOSH NORA Council for Oil and Gas Extraction, OSHA and our partners from industry for helping to raise awareness of this hazard," said Kenny Jordan, executive director of the Association of Energy Service Companies.

"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 government bureaus reiterate the dangers of developing silicosis by workers who breathe silica while performing their duties at the worksite. It was a leading cause for tort litigation - and in some instances became a cause for lawsuit abuse.

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

"OSHA and NIOSH are committed to continuing to work with the industry and workers to find effective solutions to address these hazards."

AFL-CIO Health and Safety Director Margaret Seminario stated, "The AFL-CIO strongly supports this hazard alert that provides important information to employers and workers involved in hydraulic fracturing operations regarding the serious health threat from silica exposures. It is critical that OSHA and NIOSH disseminate this information, so that immediate action can be taken to protect workers from silicosis and other silica-related diseases."

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