Silica is a mineral commonly found in the earth's crust, especially in quartz. When quartz or other rock containing silica is blasted apart, microscopic particles of silica are released as dust. Sand also often contains silica.
When dust containing tiny particles of silica is released into the air, usually in industrial settings like mining or drilling, workers in the area are in danger of breathing silica particles into their lungs. This causes the lungs to inflame and scar, lessening the person's ability to breathe, a disease called silicosis. Breathing in silica dust also raises the risk of other conditions like lung cancer, tuberculosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, kidney disease and disorders of the immune system.
West Virginia silicosis risk
Not surprisingly, silicosis is a huge concern in West Virginia with its major mining industries. Historically, the state was home to the first major industrial exposure to silica in the 1930s at Hawk's Nest, where the process of blasting a three-mile tunnel through a mountain containing silica-laced rock exposed thousands of Depression-era laborers to the dangerous dust.
Presently, the recent rise in hydraulic fracturing, a process known as fracking, may be exposing West Virginia oil and gas drillers to unsafe levels of silica.
Dangerous fracking dust
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, known as NIOSH, has issued a Hazard Alert for workers working in the fracking industry surrounding the issue of high concentrations of silica released in the fracking process. Fracking is a drilling method to extract oil and gas from deposits deep in the earth caught between layers of rock. High pressure mixtures of liquid, sand and chemicals are injected deep into this rock to fracture it and extract the oil and gas from the cracks.
The problem for workers is that the movement and manipulation of silica sand throughout the worksite causes the creation of hazardous dust. In fact, NIOSH asserts that there are seven phases of the fracking operation that create potentially dangerous silica exposures.
Mining companies are regulated by the federal and state governments to keep workplace exposure to toxic compounds at safe levels. Employers are required to keep workers safe using regulated mineral extraction practices, safety equipment and workplace dust containment.
In conjunction with its Hazard Alert for fracking workers, NIOSH took air samples at fracking sites in five states and many readings were above the levels deemed by the government as acceptable for worker exposure. In light of the likelihood that fracking-operation employers may not be protecting workers from silica as legally required, workers need to be on alert.
If you or a loved one suspects exposure to silica dust from fracking in West Virginia, or is suffering from silicosis or other related diseases from work-related dust, get medical attention and seek the advice of a work injury attorney to understand your legal rights to potential recovery. You should apply for workers' compensation, but there may be other legal remedies against employers in certain circumstances and possibly against third parties like worksite property owners or faulty equipment manufacturers.