New Study Shows Workers at Fracking Sites Exposed to Unsafe Levels of Silica Dust

by Katie Weatherford, 8/5/2013

A new study by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports that workers at 11 hydraulic fracturing sites in five states were exposed to high levels of crystalline silica dust.

According to the study, over 100 air samples tested by NIOSH showed high concentrations of silica dust in the personal breathing zone of workers at the 11 sites tested. The concentrations exceeded the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) permissible exposure limit, as well as recommended limits set by NIOSH and the American Conference of Industrial Hygienists.

Hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," is a process used to stimulate the flow of oil and natural gas from tight rock formations by injecting a fluid mixture of water, sand, and chemicals, called "proppant," into a well at high pressure. Silica is commonly the sand that is used in the proppant. The small portion of silica that can enter our lungs, called respirable crystalline silica, can cause silicosis, a disease that leads to inflammation and scarring of the lungs and makes it difficult to breathe. Approximately 180 to 360 new cases of silicosis are reported every year. Silica exposure is also believed to cause lung cancer.

OSHA estimates that stricter limits on occupational exposure to crystalline silica could save approximately 60 lives each year. Yet the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) inside the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has blocked OSHA from setting a more protective standard. OSHA sent a proposed rule to OIRA in 2011, where it has been stuck under review ever since. According to the Spring 2013 Unified Agenda, OSHA expected to release the proposed rule to the public for comment by the end of July, but there has yet to be any movement.

Until the White House stops delaying this important rule from moving forward, workers across the nation will continue to be inadequately protected. Every year OSHA's rule is delayed, the friends and families of dozens of workers across the nation will lose a loved one to a disease that could easily be prevented.

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