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Research finds high exposure to silica at fracking sites

Workplace safety experts at a fracking site first noticed all the dust surrounding the every aspect of the site. Many North Carolina employers and employees alike may be aware that exposure to silica dust could cause some of the most dangerous workplace illnesses, such as lung disease and even cancer. These dangers have traditionally been linked to mining, construction and manufacturing jobs, but recent research shows that workers in other fields, such as fracking, may be becoming exposed to this toxic material.

Sand is an important component of fracking, a process of releasing natural gas or petroleum from drilling into rock. Once workers drill into the rock, they release a mixture of chemicals, water and sand into the rock to keep the cracks open so gas can be released.

What is sand? Silica. Every time sand was handled, during transportation or refilling the heavy machinery on site, dust was created and every person at the site was exposed to it, even though they may be wearing respirators.

According to the workplace safety experts, after visiting various fracking sites across the country and testing their dust, they found that there were high levels of silica present in the air -- around 79 percent of the samples gathered exceeded the exposure limit set by workplace safety agencies.

It is possible that Occupational Safety and Health Administration safety inspectors would not have even been aware of this exposure because they do not see the process of hydraulic fracking unless a complaint has been filed. Now that they have become aware of the potential risk involved, government officials are working with the fracking industry to reduce workers' exposure to the hazardous material and, hopefully, the workplace illnesses associated with it.

North Carolina workers suffering from workplace illnesses due to exposure to dangerous material at the job may be able to file a workers' compensation claim against their employer. The compensation they receive could cover their medical expenses and replace their lost wages.

Source: NPR, "Sand from fracking could pose lung disease risk to workers," Nell Greenfieldboyce, March 29, 2013

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