What is America’s most dangerous occupation? It’s oil and gas extraction, according to a 2014 report (based on 2012 data) published by the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH).The industry’s fatality rate is now 24.2 deaths for every 100,000 full time workers vs. 3.2 deaths per 100,000 overall rate for U.S. workers. Many factors contribute to its dangerous reputation, though one is garnering lots of attention these days – the results of which happen while working unprotected around frac sand.
The composition of frac sand is 99 percent crystalline silica (silica). Inhaling its dust can lead to silicosis, which causes inflammation and scarring in the lungs. If it sounds bad, it’s because it is. Once lungs succumb to silicosis, they can’t take in as much oxygen. This leads to a host of symptoms, such as becoming easily winded and fatigued. The side effects can be difficult to manage and result in a lower quality of life and premature death.
Silicosis is a cumulative disease caused by breathing in silica dust, usually over longer time periods. However, according to The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the amount inhaled and the time length of respiration greatly determines the progression of the disease. There are three classified types of silicosis that take time and amount of inhaled toxic dust into account. The most common is the chronic or classic type, in which the onset takes an average of 10-20 years. The accelerated type occurs along a shorter timeline and appears within 5-10 years. Lastly, there’s acute silicosis, characterized by rapid onset of symptoms in as little as a few months to a few years. It’s usually deadly.
Silicosis, though not new, is still tragic, especially since the dangers of silica dust inhalation have been known since 1938. Oil and gas extraction is not the only industry whose workers are at risk. Other susceptible industries are abrasives manufacturing, quarrying, road and building construction, mining, sand blasting and stone cutting. Unfortunately, despite what research and experience reveal about its dangers, workers in jeopardy don’t always comply with safety protocols.
According to one Eagle Ford oil field worker who specializes in operations safety, “I’ve seen guys working on and around the sand movers without respiratory protection and told them to put their masks on after explaining the risks of inhaling the frac sand, only to see them work without them again during my next shift. “ Non-compliance with safety protocols while handling sand increases workers risk for contracting not just silicosis but a variety of other diseases.
According to Rocky Mountain PBS News, silica inhalation can also cause lung cancer, kidney disease, autoimmune disorders, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and increased susceptibility to tuberculosis. Other lifestyle choices can compound the risk. According to the oil field worker, “I’d be very surprised if they don’t develop some form of silicosis later in life. I’m especially concerned because I see a lot of those guys smoking on their breaks. They’re working overtime to mess up their lungs.” For those with detrimental lifestyles, proper protection is even more vital. A person’s health, like oil and gas, is a nonrenewable resource though its value remains incalculable.
Once diagnosed, silicosis is incurable, and vulnerable populations experience the highest risk. However, it is wholly preventable. NIOSH outlines a series of engineering controls, work practices, respiratory protections and employee trainings that can protect workers when other product substitutes are not possible. See “What can be done at hydraulic fracturing worksites to protect workers from exposure to silica,” for more information. Ensuring safe working environments in the oil and gas industry is a multi-pronged approach made up of government organizations, non-profits, companies, employers and the workers themselves.
In order to protect workers, OHSA tried to reduce by half the allowable amount of inhaled silica, stating that it would “save 700 lives and prevent 1,600 people from contracting silicosis annually,” as reported by Rocky Mountain PBS News. As of now, allowable daily levels of respirable silica, set in 1971, are to be no more than double what can fit on President Roosevelt’s nose as it appears on the dime. Workers can easily exceed this in one 8 hour shift.
In addition to changing allowable levels, there are other ways to protect workers. Employers play a vital role in worker exposure and behavior around silica dust. Their main roles are to educate, improve engineering controls and ensure compliance to safety protocols including proper respiratory protection. Knowing the level of worker exposure leads to the most effective control measures. Though there are a plethora of options available to protect workers, it’s important to remember that safety protocols should be based on a real world understanding of the work environment.
An Eagle Ford oil field worker reflects on his experience around personal protective equipment (PPE): “I noticed that most of the lack of compliance with PPE happened during the summer. This is understandable because summers in south Texas tend to be humid and extremely hot (up to 110 F with an even higher heat index). Most of the guys I spoke to about their misuse of PPE told me that it was too hot to wear constantly and restricted their breathing. Wearing a flame resistant jumpsuit and a respirator and hard hat while shoveling sand is extremely taxing. I know that most guys I worked with didn’t want a reputation of being ‘that guy’ who seems to take a lot of breaks.”
Though PPE is instrumental in decreasing exposure to frac sand, it may not always be practical or even possible during a hot Texan summer. There must be other ways to protect employees, which is where industry innovation comes in.
Some hydraulic fracturing and sand supply companies are taking measures to combat silica dust inhalation on their end. Some sand supply companies are striving to decrease dust caused by traditional delivery and discharge methods. According to Rocky Mountain PBS News, SandBox Logistics uses a dust filtration system as well as gravity instead of air pumps when unloading frac sand. Calfrac Well Services can now process sand onsite using robots and better containment methods. Hopefully, these methods will prove effective in setting new industry standards.
Despite engineering and safety control changes, workers still play a role in their own health and safety. For most people, dust can appear non-threatening especially since most people encounter it daily in their homes. However, not all dust is created equal. Its safety depends primarily on what it’s made of. When in doubt, take proper safety precautions or talk with employers because inhaling silica sand particles is not only toxic, it’s disease causing.