Stronger Health Regulations in the Fracking Industry Benefit the Industry and Workers Alike

Daniel Bourgault

Associate Editor

Loyola University of Chicago School of Law, JD 2022

As a compliance deadline set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) for the fracking industry approaches on June 23, 2021, both the industry and the workers employed by it are seeing benefits. Created by the Occupational Safety and Health Act, OSHA sets out regulations meant to protect employees from work conditions that threaten their health and monitors and enforces compliance with those standards.

Fracking, Silica, and OSHA’s regulatory standard

Fracking is a type of drilling that has become popular in the United States and around the world in recent decades due to its ability to increase the productivity of wells used for the extraction of fuel in the forms of natural gas and oil locked in tight rocks deep within the Earth. The practice of fracking involves the high-velocity blasting of water, chemicals, and sand deep into the Earth in order to break open impermeable rocks and release the oil and gas that has been trapped inside and push it to the surface. Silica is a type of mineral that is commonly found in rock and sand, and airborne silica is often a byproduct of the transfer of sand to the drilling site and into the drill as well as the blasting itself. When inhaled, airborne silica dust is known to contribute to silicosis (a type of lung disease that is incurable and can be deadly), lung cancer, kidney disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Over 2.3 million workers are exposed to this at work in the United States alone.

Due to the dangers that airborne silica dust poses to workers, OSHA has set out separate standards limiting exposure to it for construction, general industry, and maritime settings. The newest rule for the general industry, released in March of 2016, sets a permissible exposure limit at fifty micrograms per cubic meter of air; this is a fifty percent reduction from the permissible exposure limit under the old rule. The industry has had ample time since the date the final rule was released to explore innovative options for compliance with the standard. While construction and manufacturing employers have had to comply with this limit since 2018, the drilling (specifically fracking) employers were given three extra years to allow for development of fracking equipment that will limit the airborne silica employees are exposed to.

Compliance with the standard and the benefits

There have been several changes over the five years since the release of the new rule that have benefited workers and the industry itself. One of those changes was in regard to the method of transferring the sand into the drill at the site. Formerly, workers were exposed to airborne silica dust throughout the transfer process, which required loading sand from delivery trucks into equipment at the drilling location involving multiple open conveyors, transfer belts , and passing the sand between through chutes. In order to reach compliance with the new standard, the transfer process involves less employees and now utilizes enclosed containers to reduce the release of airborne silica dust into the air. There has also been an increase in the amount of protective gear that employees use on drilling sites in order to reduce the amount of released airborne silica dust that is inhaled by workers.

Another change that has had an important impact is the increase in the use of wet sand as opposed to dry sand. Dry sand releases more dust in general, and in turn, more airborne silica dust than wet sand does. While the adjustment to wet sand has involved costs in purchasing new equipment to prevent clumping, the change also saved money in other aspects. Sand is usually moist when it is mined and drying it is a lengthy and costly expense. The use of wet sand reduces the costs spent on drying the sand. Wet sand is also normally extracted at mines nearby to the fracking sites, and so using wet sand saves money that had been spent hauling dry sand by train to the sites.

Those adjustments that have been made so far both benefit the health of the employees and save the industry money by reducing costs. Ultimately, OSHA calculates that the new rule will save 642 lives every year, prevent over 900 silicosis cases, and amount to almost $6.4 billion in savings each year. To further help drilling employers comply with the regulations, OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has worked with industry groups to organize conferences regarding strategies for compliance. The next one, the Silica in the Oilfield Summit, will take place on April 13 and 14, 2021 and will focus on  advances in engineering controls and evaluations of their effectiveness, OSHA updates relevant to upcoming obligations for engineering controls for hydraulic fracturing operations, and companies’ experiences in implementing the hierarchy of controls for airborne silica dust.