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NIOSH and OSHA warn of exposure to silica at fracking sites

Last month, we posted about the dangers posed to workers by exposure to silica. While silica can harm workers in a wide variety of industries, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has recently indicated that those who work around hydraulic fracturing equipment could risk excessive exposure to silica dust. OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have cautioned that fracking companies need to prevent their employees from being exposed to the substance.

This warning is particularly relevant in Pennsylvania, where hydraulic fracturing has become a widespread business as companies attempt to extract natural gas from shale formations. In order to break up the shale and release the natural gas, fracking injects a mixture of sand, water and chemicals into the ground. The sand used in hydraulic fracturing is composed of 99 percent silica, however.

Fine sand particles can quickly get into the air at fracking sites, and as noted in last month's post, inhaling silica dust can cause silicosis, a particularly disabling workplace illness. According to an air quality study conducted by NIOSH, workers at a number of fracking sites are breathing in air with silica levels in excess of accepted limits. Researchers went to 11 fracking sites and gathered 116 samples of air.

In an astounding 79 percent of the samples, the level of silica exceeded the limit recommended by NIOSH. But 31 percent of the samples were over NIOSH's recommend level by a factor of 10. In addition, 47 samples revealed silica levels above the threshold permitted by OSHA standards.

Over 1.7 million workers around the country have been exposed to silica, according to NIOSH. Some workers who have been exposed may be eligible for workers' compensation, which can help defray the high costs of the medical care needed to treat some cases of silica exposure.

Source: Forbes, "Fracking Concerns Turn To Worker Health Hazards And Potential Silica Exposure," Claire Wilkinson, June 22, 2012.

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