Velda Addison, Hart Energy

For the most part, many people don’t like to be bogged down by a slew of rules. But when it comes to safety in the oil patch, one rule making its way through the regulatory process in the U.S. should not spark any opposition.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is updating rules concerning exposure to respirable silica dust in hopes of reducing diseases such as lung cancer, pulmonary disease and silicosis, a lung disease caused by inhaling small silica particles which inflame and scar lung tissue, among workers.

The final rule, which was released March 24, will require employers to:

  • Use engineering controls such as water or ventilation and work practices to limit worker exposure;
  • Provide respiratory protection when controls are unable to limit exposures to the level permitted. The permissible exposure limit (PEL) for respirable crystalline silica is 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air;
  • Limit access to high exposure areas;
  • Train workers on the dangers of silica and
  • Provide medical exams to highly exposed workers, according to a news release from the Labor Department.

“This rule will save lives,” U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez said in a statement. “It will enable workers to earn a living without sacrificing their health.”

The regulations have not been updated since 1971.

If proper precautions are not taking, silica exposure can occur at hydraulic fracturing sites. There is a potential to breathe in silica-containing dust when it is released from sand offloaded from trucks, while pouring sand into blender hoppers or from parts of sand movers, according to OSHA.

But silica exposure can be tamed, and some of the methods are as simple as limiting the number of and amount of time workers are in areas where silica dust is present. Other methods offered up by OSHA include:

  • Performing dusty operations remotely;
  • Reducing airborne dust by using water-based products on roads and around the wellsite;
  • Using skirting around the bottom of sand movers to close off points where dust can be released or
  • Install exhaust ventilation on machines or equipment to collect dust.

The final rule is written as two standards: one for construction and the other for general industry and maritime. Compliance dates are staggered.

With the exception of the engineering controls and medical surveillance, hydraulic fracturing operations in the oil and gas industry must comply with the standard by June 23, 2018.

“Because controls for respirable crystalline silica in hydraulic fracturing are still in development, the rule allows hydraulic fracturing employers additional time to implement engineering controls to take advantage of emerging technologies,” OSHA said. “Those employers do not have to implement engineering controls to limit exposures to the new PEL until June 23, 2021, three years later than other general industry and maritime employers.”

When the final rule becomes fully effective, OSHA said it estimates that the rule will save more than 600 lives and prevent more than 900 new cases of silicosis annually.

Velda Addison can be reached at