OHSA Issues Alert on Silica Exposure
On June 21, 2012, the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) issued a “Hazard Alert,” warning oil and gas industry workers about the dangers of crystalline silica overexposure.
Crystalline Silica and Health Risks
“Workers who breathe silica day after day are at greater risk of developing silicosis, a disease in which lung tissue reacts to trapped silica particles, causing inflammation and scarring, and reducing the lungs' ability to take in oxygen. Silica also can cause lung cancer and has been linked to other diseases, such as tuberculosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and kidney and autoimmune disease,” United States Department of Labor Occupational Safety & Health Administration.
- Crystalline silica, a common mineral, is a major component of the sand used in hydraulic fracturing (hydro-fracking) operations in the oil and gas industry.
- Breathable silica is common in many industries, but overexposure to silica can pose a serious health risk to certain workers.
- Silica overexposure can lead to silicosis, a disease which causes inflammation and scarring, and reduces the lungs’ ability to take in oxygen.
- Silica overexposure can also cause lung cancer and potentially other diseases such as tuberculosis, kidney disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Symptoms of Silicosis
Information below provided by OSHA.
- Chronic/classic silicosis, the most common type, occurs after 10–20 years of moderate to low exposures to respirable crystalline silica. Symptoms associated with chronic silicosis may or may not be obvious; therefore, workers need to have a chest x-ray to determine if there is lung damage. As the disease progresses, the worker may experience shortness of breath when exercising and have clinical signs of poor oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange. In the later stages, the worker may experience fatigue, extreme shortness of breath, cough, and, in some cases, respiratory failure.
- Accelerated silicosis can occur after 5–10 years of high exposures to respirable crystalline silica. It is similar to chronic silicosis, but progresses more rapidly.
- Acute silicosis occurs after only a few months or a few years following exposures to extremely high levels of respirable crystalline silica. Symptoms of acute silicosis include rapidly progressive and severe shortness of breath, weakness, and weight loss. Though much less common than other forms of silicosis, acute silicosis nearly always leads to disability and death.
Seven Sources of Silica Exposure
The OSHA alert identifies potential sources of silica exposure in hydro-fracking operations. Information below comes from the OSHA/NIOSH Hazard Alert: Worker Exposure to Silica during Hydraulic Fracturing.
- Dust ejected from thief hatches (access ports) on top of the sand movers during refilling operations while the machines are running (hot loading).
- Dust ejected and pulsed through open side fill ports on the sand movers during refilling operations
- Dust generated by on-site vehicle traffic.
- Dust released from the transfer belt under the sand movers.
- Dust created as sand drops into, or is agitated in, the blender hopper and on transfer belts.
- Dust released from operations of transfer belts between the sand mover and the blender; and
- Dust released from the top of the end of the sand transfer belt (dragon’s tail) on sand movers.
Preventing Silica Exposure in Workers
“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,” Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health.
The alert outlines several ways employers can help limit workers’ exposure to silica.
- Monitor the air to determine workers' silica exposure levels.
- Control dust exposures by improving existing engineering controls and safe work practices.
- Provide respiratory protection when it is needed to protect workers.
- Consider medical monitoring for workers who are exposed to silica.
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