Thursday, November 7, 2013

OSHA Taking Aim at Silica Exposure in Fracking Operations

The use of hydraulic fracturing in upstream oil and gas operations has increased significantly in the past several years as a result of new technologies that have provided increased access to oil and gas deposits located in deep rock formations.  Hydraulic fracturing operations inject a fracturing fluid into the ground, which contains “proppants” that help hold open fractures in the rock formations created by the fracturing fluid and force the gas into the well bore.  One of the primary proppants used in hydraulic fracturing fluids is sand, which can contain up to 99% silica. 

Workers who are exposed to high levels of silica dust can contract a disease called silicosis, which can lead to lung cancer and other disabilities and death.  OSHA, which has jurisdiction over upstream oil and gas operations, has always required employers to monitor their employees’ levels of exposure to silica and to ensure that such exposures do not exceed certain prescribed permissible exposure limits (“PEL”).  OSHA regulations that apply to silica exposure include 29 CFR 1910.1000 (Air Contaminants), 29 CFR 1910.1200 (Hazard Communication), and 29 CFR 1910.134 (Respiratory Protection). 

Because large amounts of sand are used in fracking operations, oil and gas workers employed in these operations can be exposed to high concentrations of silica.  With the discovery of the Marcellus Shale in the eastern United States, oil and gas exploration employing fracking technologies has dramatically increased.  Perhaps not coincidentally, OSHA and the related agency National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) have recently been investigating worker safety and health hazards in upstream oil and gas operations.  NIOSH made safety and health in the upstream oil and gas industry a priority area of focus in 2005 when it created the National Occupational Research Agenda (NORA) Oil and Gas Extraction Council to address occupational safety and health issues in the industry.  Additionally, OSHA has begun using national, regional, and local emphasis programs to inspect oilfield work sites in the five OSHA regions located in areas of significant upstream activities.

In June of 2012, OSHA and NIOSH issued a Hazard Alert identifying exposure to airborne silica as a health hazard to workers performing certain jobs in the hydraulic fracturing process.  The Alert states that NIOSH collected 116 full shift air samples at 11 hydraulic fracturing sites in 5 states.  The results revealed that a large percentage of the samples showed silica exposures well in excess of the current OSHA PEL of roughly .1 milligrams per cubic meter (mg/m3) and the NIOSH recommended exposure limit (“REL”) of .05 mg/m3.  Many of the samples were more than 10 times the PELs/RELs.  The Alert warns that employers must monitor silica exposure levels and choose proper controls, such as engineering controls and respiratory protection, to protect workers who could be exposed to silica dust in excess of OSHA PELs.

OSHA also published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for Occupational Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica in the Federal Register on September 12, 2013.  The NPRM seeks to decrease the OSHA PELs for silica exposure to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air (μg/m3) on an 8-hour time-weighted average.   The new rule would also include new provisions governing the measurement of silica exposure, limiting workers' access to areas where silica exposures are high, methods for reducing exposures, provision of medical exams to workers with high silica exposures, and provision of training for workers regarding silica-related hazards. The new rules would apply to all OSHA industry standards, including the General Industry Standards that govern upstream oil and gas activities.  The proposed new regulation is open for comment until December 11, 2013.

What should employers in the upstream oil and gas industry take from these recent actions by OSHA and NIOSH?  They should know that OSHA will be focusing on health and safety hazards in their industry, especially including chemical and silica exposures.  Employers in the industry should be prepared for increased inspections that target excessive silica exposures. They should also monitor and stay ahead of these new proposed rules regarding silica exposure by consulting OSHAs Crystalline Silica Rulemaking Page.  Employers should also consult the OSHA Hazard Alert discussed above for insight on which occupations in the industry that OSHA believes are most likely to suffer excessive silica exposures and the controls that OSHA believes to be most effective in limiting exposures.