Photo courtesy of NIOSH
Hydraulic fracturing kicks up massive amounts of silica dust, a known health hazard linked to lung cancer.
Photo by Tudor Van Hampton for ENR
Chris Sneden, marketing manager for 3M, demonstrates a new tablet app on the National Safety Council exhibit floor in Orlando.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration says it is halting the development of a long-awaited silica dust regulation to study the respiratory hazards created during hydraulic fracturing operations. New research released earlier this year shows that fracking exposes workers to high levels of crystalline silica dust, which could lead to lung cancer and other health problems.

"It was really an eye-opener for all of us," said OSHA chief David Michaels on Oct. 23 at the National Safety Council's annual meeting in Orlando. "One of the things we are now doing is actually looking at how you can cover oil and gas—in particular, fracking—to protect workers from silica exposure. Until we figure this out, we can't really move that standard forward."

So far, most concerns over fracking have been over its impact to the environment, not the hazards it poses to workers. Fracking requires workers to handle hundreds of thousands of pounds of so-called "frac sand" that is injected into the ground. Once injected, the particles prop open shale fissures so oil and gas can flow into the well. Just about every step of using the sand—from mining to transportation to filling hoppers—kicks up large amounts of fine silica dust, a known health risk.

In May, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health released a report on the respiratory dangers of fracking. Scientists took 116 air samples at 11 fracking sites in five states and found that each site "consistently exceeded" current OSHA limits in addition to far-tighter voluntary industry standards. The silica hazards on one-third of the sites were at least 10 times higher than current NIOSH exposure recommendations, as well.

OSHA's out-of-date silica regulation allows workers to breathe 2.5 to 5 times more dust than what it is proposing in the forthcoming standard, industry experts say. The new rules have been in the works for years, but the waiting period is not just because of these new scientific findings. Lobbyists opposing the far-reaching regulation have argued that current limits are good enough to prevent silicosis and that it would cost employers billions of dollars to implement changes.

On the convention show floor, representatives at 3M, which manufactures dust masks, respirators and other protective gear, said they were not aware that OSHA was putting its dust regulation on hold. They demonstrated to ENR a smartphone and tablet app, which helps employers identify respiratory hazards, recommends a product and helps users perform fit tests. The app will be available for free for iPhone and iPad devices, with an Android version coming in the first quarter of next year.

Cranes, Fall Protection Discussed

At the safety conference, Michaels added that OSHA will be studying the effectiveness of its new crane and derrick regulation, which it began enforcing in 2010.

"We hear very positive things from some employers, operators, businesses, all the trades and trade associations," Michaels said. "On the other hand we still see fatalities associated with cranes. We haven't yet evaluated the program, and I think it's very important that we do that."

Michaels also called on industry to help mitigate falls, which OSHA has named its number-one cause of workplace injury for the past year. Industry experienced 750 fatalities last year, many of which were in construction, and one-third were due to falls, which continually ranks as the leading cause of injury, Michaels said.

Interestingly, many falls are happening at low heights of 20 feet or less and on residential construction projects. NIOSH earlier this year launched a fall-safety campaign, which can be accessed here.


OSHA's Top 10 Violations for FY 2012

Hazard Number
Fall Protection 7,250
Hazard Communication 4,696
Scaffolding 3,814
Repiratory Protection 2,371
Ladders 2,310
Machine Guarding 2,097
Powered Industrial Trucks 1,993
Electrical, Wiring Methods 1,744
Lockout/Tagout 1,572
Electrical, General Reqs. 1,332