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Energy sector strives to cut silica exposure from fracking

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Companies in the energy sector are working to get ahead of new federal rules to protect workers from inhaling crystalline silica, which is used in many industries, by improving processes and investing in new technologies.

As the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration works to finalize rules on worksite exposures to crystalline silica, opportunities to limit dust exposure are plentiful across the fracking process, experts say, as large quantities of silica sand are used as the “proppant” that holds fractures in rock formations open, allowing the oil and gas to flow out of the formation and be collected.

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the kinds of technology the energy industry can use to limit silica exposure include the application of liquid dust suppressants to keep particles from becoming airborne, mobile dust-collecting particulate air vacuums, to personal protective gear such as respiratory masks.

“There are excellent engineering controls that companies can now take advantage of,” said Rick L. Ingram, Victoria, Texas-based member of the National Advisory Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. “The technology is becoming more prevalent and more efficient.”

Moreover, field studies conducted by NIOSH in 2012 identified some of the primary sources of silica dust exposure during hydraulic fracturing operations which include when sand is first delivered to a site via truck, when the sand is loaded into dedicated sand movers, and when the sand is transferred via conveyer belt into a blender, where it is mixed with liquid fracturing fluids.

Sam Henselijn, San Antonio-based business development specialist at fracking storage system provider SandCan L.L.C., said his company has recently developed a storage and unloading technology that significantly reduces airborne silica at fracking sites by putting the fracking sand in a hopper that is housed inside a frame in the shape of a standard shipping container.

“There are a lot of inefficiencies in how fracking sand is loaded, stored, transported and unloaded,” he said. “You need to find a way of keeping sand from degrading and the wind from blowing it.”

The energy sector can take some solace in the experiences of the mining industry, which has made strides in combating workers exposure to another harmful airborne particle, coal dust.

The lesson that comes out of the coal industry, is there are known, proven technologies to protect the worker, such as respirators, said Bruce Watzman, Washington-based vice president of the National Mining Association.

The mining industry also is beta testing the use of continuous personal dust monitors, which will give a real-time data feed on airborne dust at worksites, Mr. Watzman said, noting that while the technology has proven itself in the lab, it still has to prove itself in the field.

“Everybody wants a device that can give us real-time dust monitoring results so that we can take actions to protect miners when exposures are occurring,” he said.

Mr. Ingram said he expected wider use of technologies such as gravity-based systems that eliminate the need to force proppant into sand containers as oversight of air quality at extraction sites tightens. “If the proposed silica rule from OSHA becomes law, it is going to be very difficult for companies to meet that standard without proper engineering controls in place.”

The OSHA rule, first proposed in 2013 and due to be finalized in June, would halve the OSHA permissible exposure limit for respirable crystalline silica from 100 micrograms of silica per cubic meter of air to 50 micrograms per cubic meter.

Inhaling silica dust into the lungs causes silicosis, an incurable respiratory disease that can kill, as well as lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Silica exposure is one of the emerging risks that we see, but the fracking industry is starting to take action,” said Pascal Ray, Houston, Texas-based senior vice president and marine and energy program manager for the Southwest region of USI Insurance Services L.L.C. “My energy clients are serious about limiting this risk.”

Despite the progress that has been made in reducing exposure, silicosis can take about 10 or 20 years for the symptoms to develop, Mr. Ray said.

“The issue for the energy industry is the employees that were exposed to silica before much of the new the safety equipment came online,” he said. “We are not yet seeing a lot of silicosis-related claims to the upstream energy sector yet, but it is a concern.”