Extraction work is a big part of Colorado's economy. It is important to recognize, though, that people who work in the state's oil and gas fields face a unique risk of injury. Not only do they frequently labor around dangerous heavy machinery, but they are also regularly exposed to hazardous substances that could cause permanent disability or death.
Late last month, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued an official "hazard alert" warning of the dangers of silica exposure at hydraulic fracturing sites. OSHA reached its conclusions after studying silica levels at fracking sites in Colorado and three other states.
During hydraulic fracturing, large amounts of silica sand are moved about the worksite and eventually injected into the well. During this process, fracking workers are exposed to significant quantities of respirable silica dust.
All told, nearly 80 percent of job sites studied had respirable silica levels that were greater than the National Institute for Occupational Safety's permissible exposure level. Breathing silica dust can cause a number of serious health problems including silicosis, which is a permanent scarring of the lungs that makes it hard to breathe. In many cases, the effects of silicosis may not appear until years or decades after the initial exposure.
Other potential exposure-related occupational diseases include tuberculosis, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, kidney problems and autoimmune disease.
Employers have a responsibility to protect oil and gas workers from dangerous or unhealthy working conditions. OHSA recommends that employers take safety steps including providing respiratory protection to workers, designing the jobsite to minimize silica exposure and using alternative materials where feasible.
Workers who do become injured or ill as a result of workplace exposure to hazardous substances are eligible for benefits under Colorado workers' compensation law.
Source: OSHA - NIOSH Hazard Alert, "Worker Exposure to Silica during Hydraulic Fracturing."