WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) - The AFL-CIO has put federal bureaus responsible for worker safety on alert regarding silica exposure at hydraulic fracturing sites.
In a letter dated May 22, the labor organization requested that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MHSA) begin to work with the industry to implement policies and procedures.
The letter was in reaction to a NIOSH study that determined a hazard existed for fracking workers. The report said that NIOSH "concluded that an inhalation health hazard existed for workers exposed to crystalline silica at the evaluated hydraulic fracturing sites."
NIOSH said it notified company representatives of the findings and provided reports with recommendations to control exposure.
Specifically, NIOSH recommended that "all hydraulic fracturing sites evaluate their operations to determine the potential for worker exposure to crystalline silica and implement controls as necessary to protect workers."
The researchers determined that the magnitude of exposure to silica-containing, respirable dust was so great that personal respiratory protection alone was not sufficient to adequately protect workers.
The AFL-CIO letter acknowledged that providing energy is an important task but said that it could and should be done safely. They cited the progress made in the coal industry to limit hazards.
But could this "inhalation health hazard" become fertile ground for lawsuits?
Professor Ronald Rotunda of the Chapman University School of Law in Orange, Calif., said plaintiffs' lawyers will probably look for clients among those who live near fracking sites if it is an airborne problem.
"The AFL-CIO is understandably concerned about worker safety," he said. "But asbestos lawsuits were usually not brought by employees of asbestos companies."
He said asbestos lawsuits were brought by users of asbestos or those who were exposed to it by being in the proximity of the substance.
"If this is something that is in the air," Rotunda said, "plaintiffs' lawyers will start looking at people living near fracking sites."
Tort lawyers have been talking about fracking for at least the past year. Several "toxic tort" conferences have featured panels about fracking.
There have already been several environmental lawsuits filed against fracking operators. Recently there was a federal lawsuit involving a worker injured in an explosion at a fracking site.