Hazard Alert

Crystalline Silica Hazards and Fracking

Date First Published on SafetySmart Compliance: July 13th, 2012
Topics: Airborne Contaminants | PPE |

Dust at Fracking siteIt’s not a dirty word or even a euphemism for one. “Fracking,” short for hydraulic fracturing, is a process used to stimulate well production in the oil and gas industry. Fracking is dirty in the sense that it kicks up a lot of dust, much of which contains high levels of crystalline silica, a mineral that can damage the lungs.

Fracking & Silica Hazards

Fracking typically involves pumping large volumes of water and sand into a well at high pressure to fracture shale and other tight formations, allowing oil and gas to flow into the well. If you currently do fracking, you already know the details of the process; if you don’t do fracking, you probably don’t care about them.

NIOSH field studies show that workers may be exposed to dust with high levels of breathable crystalline silica during fracking operations. NIOSH lists 7 primary sources of high silica dust exposure:

  • Ejection of dust from hatches on top of sand movers during refilling;
  • Ejection and pulsing of dust through open side fill ports of sand movers during refilling;
  • Dust generated by on-site vehicle traffic;
  • Release of dust from transfer belts under sand movers;
  • Dust created by dropping of sand into blender hoppers and onto transfer belts;
  • Dust released from operations of transfer belts between the sand mover and blender; and
  • Release of dust from the top of the end of the sand transfer belt (dragon’s tail) on sand movers.

Silica Dust Safety Measures during Fracking

Here is a list measures to protect workers from crystalline silica exposure during fracking:

  1. Air monitoring to ensure silica levels are below OSHA PEL’s;
  2. Requiring workers to cap unused fill ports on sand movers to cut dust released, especially during filling;
  3. Reducing drop height between the sand transfer belt and blender hoppers to reduce dust levels;
  4. Limiting number of workers present during high exposure operations;
  5. Limiting amount of time workers must spend in high exposure areas;
  6. Watering roads around well sites to reduce dust;
  7. Installing thick plastic stilling or staging curtains to enclose the bottom sides of sand movers to limit dust released;
  8. Where possible, enclosing operator cabs and booths with HEPA filtration and climate controls;
  9. Using local exhaust ventilation to prevent the escape of silica-containing dusts;
  10. Replacing transfer belts with screw augers on sand movers in new designs or retrofits;
  11. Providing workers appropriate respiratory protection equipment and PPE;
  12. Ensuring exposed workers receive appropriate silica and other chemical safety training; and
  13. Performing medical monitoring of all workers exposed to silica dust.

Controlling Other Airborne Contaminants & Hazardous Dusts

Of course, the approach of using a combination of testing, monitoring, work practices, engineering controls and PPE recommended by the OSHA/NIOSH Hazard Alert to limit silica dust exposure would serve as a general blue print for protecting workers from exposure to just about any kind of hazardous dusts.

Go to the SafetySmart Dusts & Airborne Contaminants Compliance Center for a 7-step crystalline silica compliance plan, Model Crystalline Silica Exposure Plan and tools you can use to control other airborne contaminants and hazardous dusts.