Tougher Limits and Workplace Training Needed to Prevent Costly Injuries and Illnesses
Washington DC – Hydraulic fracturing technology – also known as fracking – exposes workers to dangerous silica dust, a workplace safety expert said today during hearings on new standards before the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
“Health and safety are critical to my Wyoming friends and neighbors who work to power the nation,” said Dan Neal, executive director of the Equality State Policy Center, which operates the Wyoming Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (WYCOSH). “Exposure to silica and the risk of developing silicosis and related diseases is a significant hazard related to hydraulic fracturing in the oil and gas business. Strong oversight is needed in an industry that has failed to provide safe and healthy work sites.”
Fracking, which uses water and sand to open shale formations to extract oil and gas, is already controversial because of potential environmental damage to air, land and water resources. It is just one of several industries – including construction, foundries, glassmaking and others – in which workers are routinely exposed to high levels of airborne dust. Exposure to silica dust, according to experts from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), can lead to silicosis, lung cancer, pulmonary tuberculosis, airways diseases, and autoimmune disorders.
Neal was among a panel of workplace safety experts who spoke today, including:
- Bill Kojola, an industrial hygienist, representing the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH)
- Peter Dooley, a health and safety project consultant for National COSH
- Javier Garcia Hernandez of the Philadelphia Area Project on Occupational Safety and Health (PhilaPOSH)
Also testifying today are James Schultz and Allen Schultz, representing the Wisconsin Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health.
OSHA is hearing testimony about landmark new regulation, the first proposed by the agency in many years, which would limit exposure of workers to silica dust. The proposal is for a new limit of 50 micrograms of silica dust per cubic meter of air space, a standard first recommended by the NIOSH in 1974.
“Why do we need a silica regulation?” asked Neal.
Industry will not meet this safer exposure limit on its own. They will not conduct the exposure monitoring, offer the medical surveillance to workers heavily exposed to silica, or provide adequate training. Industry already has tried to argue that risks from disease are low.
Respiratory diseases and other long-term conditions associated with silica exposure are extremely costly to workers, governments and the community as a whole, said Neal. In addition to preventing painful suffering, limiting exposure to such conditions can yield significant savings by lowering medical costs and reducing lost time at work.
Kojola, who formerly worked in the AFL-CIO health and safety department, said that comprehensive training for workers is essential to effective regulation. Workers have a right to know, he said, the procedures and equipment needed to limit exposure to harmful dust. Training should happen when workers are first exposed to dust, be refreshed annually, and be available to match the literacy level and language of exposed workers, he said.
“Workplace standards are always more effective when workers have tools to protect themselves,” said Kojola.
“Most workers are not informed about the hazards of working with silica and the controls needed to limit exposure,” said Dooley, who has visited hundreds of workplaces as an industrial hygienist for U.S. labor unions, National COSH, employers and other organizations.
“When we show workers the difference between dry cutting of masonry and wet cutting – which reduces exposure to dust – they are amazed at how well it works,” added Dooley. “But few have ever seen this equipment on the job. Workers are regularly unfamiliar with respirator training, fit testing or other safeguards to reduce their exposure to hazardous silica dust.”
“Vulnerable and temporary workers in all phases of construction are currently working in deplorable conditions related to silica – we need to raise the bar and protect all workers from this hazard” said Javier Garcia Hernandez, who works construction in Philadelphia and trains workers in health and safety.
OSHA hearings on the proposed silica rule, which began on March 18th, will continue through April 4th at the U.S. Department of Labor.
National COSH links the efforts of local worker health and safety coalitions in communities across the United States, advocating for elimination of preventable hazards in the workplace. For more information, please visit coshnetwork.org. Follow us at National Council for Occupational Safety and Health on Facebook, and @NationalCOSH on Twitter.