On June 21, 2012, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a Hazard Alert on ensuring that employers in hydraulic fracturing operations take appropriate steps to protect workers from silica exposure. This alert followed the release of preliminary findings by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in May 2012 that found workers may be exposed to dust with high levels of respirable crystalline silica during hydraulic fracturing operations. A full copy of the Hazard Alert may be found at http://www.osha.gov/dts/hazardalerts/hydraulic_frac_hazard_alert.html.  

Brief Overview

NIOSH conducted extensive field studies of hydraulic fracturing operations in a number of states, including Pennsylvania, to determine the extent to which workers at fracking well sites were exposed to silica dust. Silica sand is a frequently-used proppant in fracking operations that is usually trucked to the well site, loaded onto sand movers, and then transported by conveyor belts to be blended with other fracking fluids before being injected into the well. NIOSH identified seven primary sources of silica dust exposure during fracking operations that resulted in silica exposures over the calculated OSHA Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) in 47% of the samples taken in the field studies. These sources included dust released from sand movers during refilling and hot loading, dust generated by on-site vehicle traffic, dust released from the operation of sand movers and conveyor belts, and dust generated during the operation of the blender hopper and sand transfer belt.

What Employers Need to Know

The OSHA Hazard Alert also contains measures that employers should consider taking to protect workers from exposure to silica dust at well sites. These measures include engineering controls, development of safe and alternative work practices, provision of protective equipment, worker training, and where feasible, substitution of silica sand as a proppant with a safe alternative, such as sintered bauxite, ceramics, or resin-covered sand.

As development of the Marcellus Shale and other sources of natural gas continues, hydraulic fracturing operations will come under heightened scrutiny from both governmental agencies, including OSHA, and the plaintiffs bar. Evaluation of silica dust exposure, coupled with implementation of the proper steps to minimize and eliminate such exposure, will give both OSHA and the plaintiffs bar one less opportunity to impact operations and extract money from employers.