Oil and Gas Lawyer Steven Saunders in Scranton tipped me off to a new OSHA Bulletin entitled “Worker Exposure to Silica during Hydraulic Fracturing.” A copy of the Bulletin is available HERE. With this Bulletin, contractors working in the oil and gas industry can be assured that OSHA is going to be paying close attention to working conditions at sites where fracking is occurring.
Under federal law, contractors are responsible for providing safe and healthy working conditions for their workers. According to the Bulletin, OSHA has jurisdiction over regulating work place conditions that expose workers to silica, including Air Contaminants (29 CFR 1910.1000); Hazard Communication (29 CFR 1910.1200); and Respiratory Protection (29 CFR 1910.134). In addition to providing workers with proper respiratory protection, OSHA recommends contractors institute engineering controls, such as applying fresh water to roads around the well site to reduce dust, reducing the drop height on the sand transfer belt, enclosing points where dust is released, using enclosed cabs or booths for workers unloading silica, and replacing belt transfers with a screw auger transfer system. Moreover, OSHA recommends that contractors medically monitor workers for unhealthy exposure to silica dust.
OSHA also recommends educating workers on how to safely handle silica and to reduce the hazards related to silica exposure. This recommendation is particularly important because if a contractor cited for an OSHA violation can show that it had an employee safety policy in effect; adequately informed employees of the safety policy; diligently tried to discover violations; and effectively enforced violations of safety rules, it may avoid liability under the “employee misconduct” defense.
Apparently, even low or moderate levels of exposure to crystalline silica can cause serious damage to a worker’s lungs, including chronic cough, shortness of breath, and in some cases respiratory failure. The dangers associated with silica sound eerily similar to those of asbestos. If the health hazards involving silica are founded, like with asbestos, you can be sure that plaintiffs attorneys are waiting to lay siege to an industry with deep pockets. Therefore, if OSHA fines were not incentive enough to begin taking silica exposure seriously, the threat of lawsuits from the Plaintiffs’ Bar should add more than enough additional incentive.
So, contractors in the oil and gas industry who have workers exposed to silica dust should be proactive or they will likely find themselves facing an expensive OSHA fine or on the wrong end of a company threatening personal injury lawsuit.