It’s been called miner's phthisis, grinder's asthma, potter's rot. Silicosis is a disease of the lungs that’s caused by inhaling tiny particles of crystalline silica dust, basically sand. Those particles cut the lung tissue, causing inflammation and scarring that make it difficult to breathe.
The disease is nothing new -- the ancient Greeks were the first to give it a name -- but concern about it is cropping up in new places, including the oil and gas industry. Wyoming Public Radio’s energy and natural resources reporter Stephanie Joyce joins us to talk about the problem, and what’s being done about it.
WILLOW BELDEN: So, why is this a problem in the oil and gas industry?
STEPHANIE JOYCE: Well, Willow, as most people here in Wyoming know, oil and gas wells these days are often completed using a technique that's known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking. And that technique involves pumping huge volumes of water and sand into the wellbore at high pressures to create tiny cracks or fractures in the rock. And so that means having millions of pounds of sand on hand at wellsites. If that sand isn’t properly managed, it becomes airborne and workers breathe it in, hence, silicosis.
A 2012 study by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health found that at more than half of sampled wellsites, exposure levels were above mandated workplace safety standards. At some wellsites, exposure levels were 10 times higher. And that’s an important detail because even short-term exposures at that level can cause silicosis.
BELDEN: How widespread is this problem? I mean, is this at every wellsite? Some wellsites?
JOYCE: The short answer is, no one really knows. But the government thinks it’s pretty widespread. The NIOSH study only sampled 11 sites, but they felt the results were representative enough to issue an industry-wide hazard alert, advising all companies of the danger. And right now, there are roughly half a million oil and gas worker in the U.S. and almost half of those work at well servicing companies -- the companies that actually frack wells -- so there’s a lot of potential for exposure…but not a lot of data on actual exposure. Something to keep in mind though is that drilling is on the upswing. I recently spoke with Dan Neal of the Equality State Policy Center about the issue, which he’s been following closely… let me play you a little bit of what he had to say about it.
DAN NEAL: We’re looking at somewhere between 25,000-30,000 wells being drilling in Wyoming in the next 10-15 years. Most of those wells, if not the wide majority of those wells, will be fracked, and we know that companies will be using sand in most instances.
JOYCE: And Willow, that last point Neal makes is important, because there is some work being done on using sand alternatives. When this issue has come up in the past, the Petroleum Association of Wyoming has mentioned that one way that it’s looking at dealing with the issue and keeping workers safe is looking into some of those alternatives.
BELDEN: What else is being done to address the problem?
JOYCE: The first thing was that hazard bulletin that I mentioned before. The government sent that out to employers across the country to let them know about the issue. NIOSH has also put out some suggestions for cheap, easy-to-implement technologies that would help keep the dust under control, and they’re developing some additional, more complicated technologies. In the fall, I spoke with Eric Esswein, who was one of the leaders on the study that uncovered this problem and he said one of the bigger challenges is getting access to some of the contractors that need help the most.
ERIC ESSWEIN: We’ve had smaller companies call us up and ask for our help, but of course, they can’t necessarily get us onto the site, because our presence on the site is going to have to be essentially approved by the operator.
JOYCE: The operators being the big-name companies you’ve probably heard of… That said, Esswein also said mentioned some of the operators have approached NIOSH for help, and some of them have started investing heavily -- tens of millions of dollars -- in technology to help with the problem. So that's going on. And at the state level, OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, is working on some of its own outreach.
But while we’re on the topic of challenges, another one is that there’s a lot of turnover in the oil and gas industry. Workers move jobs pretty regularly, so it can be hard to make sure they’re getting the information and it’s not like it's exactly intuitive. Most people don’t automatically think: “Sand! I wonder if that’s a health hazard!” Compounding that also is the fact that OSHA doesn’t conduct a huge number of site inspections annually, so if an employer isn’t dealing with the problem on its own, it might be going undetected.
BELDEN: You mention sand. Obviously it’s not just in the oil and gas industry that workers interact with sand. So how big is the problem in the oil and gas industry relative to other industries?
JOYCE: That’s a really good question. You’re definitely right that it’s not just the oil and gas industry where silica exposure is a problem. Construction and mining are traditionally the industries that people worry about, and between the two of those, there are many, many more workers than oil and gas. But it’s kind of hard to compare them because the concerns in the oil and gas industry are a little different: namely it’s still a very new problem and exposure levels are somewhat unknown.
But there is actually an effort underway to reduce acceptable exposure levels across all industries. The current limits were set 40 years ago and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration says they’re inadequate. The proposed rules also make changes to how silica exposure is monitored and guarantee medical exams for workers in high-risk positions. But that proposal has received quite a bit of pushback from industry pretty much across the board. There were hearings were held in Washington, D.C. in March and the beginning of April, and hundreds of groups testified. The American Petroleum Institute was one of them. In written testimony, API’s senior economist raised issues of cost, saying the proposed rules would be devastating to small operators. And a lobbyist for API raised questions about feasibility, saying that technologies currently available to control dust can’t get exposure levels down to what’s proposed.
OSHA will have to respond to those comments and we’ll just have to see where things go from there. Previous efforts to change the acceptable exposure levels have failed and it’s not clear they’ll be any more successful this time.
BELDEN: We’ll look forward to hearing more as things progress. Thanks, Stephanie.
JOYCE: Thanks, Willow.
BELDEN: That was WPR energy and natural resources reporter Stephanie Joyce, speaking about silicosis in the oil and gas industry.