This post was authored by Inna Shelley.

On June 21, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) issued a Hazard Alert addressing the health risks of exposure to airborne silica for workers employed on hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” sites, in a process used to extract oil and gas. Sand used in fracking contains up to 99% silica.

Recent NIOSH field studies revealed that many fracking workers were overexposed to silica dust. Exposure often occurs during the transportation, on-site moving, and loading of sand into containers, belts, and blender hoppers. Although employees directly involved in these operations and those working downwind had the highest silica exposures, even upwind workers outside of the immediate areas had exposures above NIOSH-recommended levels.

Silica exposure poses many serious health risks including lung cancer and silicosis, a lung disease where lung tissue around trapped silica causes inflammation and scarring, hindering proper oxygen intake. Other diseases linked to silica exposure include tuberculosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and kidney and autoimmune diseases.

The Alert advocates that employers implement a combination of engineering controls, work practices, protective equipment, product substitution, and worker training to reduce exposure and protect workers. To this end, the Alert recommends a series of specific process and equipment changes, including several short-term solutions susceptible to quick implementation. Monitoring of occupational exposure to silica and medical monitoring of exposed workers is also suggested.

Smaller employers with 250 employees at a given site, and no more than 500 employees nationwide, are invited to take advantage of OSHA’s free On-Site Consultation Program. This program helps small businesses to identify and correct worksite hazards and provides free, confidential advice without the risk of triggering enforcement, penalties, or citations.

Fracking is an increasingly common and growing practice in the oil and gas industry. As a result, the issuance of this Hazard Alert focusing on medical hazards and solutions specific to fracking suggests that OSHA and NIOSH may target the fracking industry in future enforcement efforts, as well as focus on other industries where silica exposure is likely. Employers whose workers face occupational silica exposure should stay ahead of these developments by carefully reviewing the exposure risk, evaluating the feasibility of specific safety measures suggested in the Alert, and implementing measures to protect workers from silica exposure as part of their health and safety practices.