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Silicosis Risk for West Virginia Oil and Gas Drilling Workers

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has released a study which outlines concerns for the safety and health of those employed by oil and gas drilling companies who may be at risk for silicosis. Silicosis is a form of respiratory (lung) disease that results from inhaling silica dust. The microscopic fibers build up in the lung tissue, causing severe inflammation and scarring, thereby reducing the lungs' capacity to take in oxygen. Like similar toxic exposure diseases such as mesothelioma and asbestosis, silicosis often takes many years to develop into fatal respiratory symptoms. Chronic silicosis initially causes no symptoms, but symptoms may surface as long as fifteen to twenty years after silica dust exposure.silicosis1.jpg

Hydraulic fracturing, or hydro-fracking is a technology used in West Virginia in which drillers inject huge amounts of water and chemicals into shale layers that hold natural gas and oil. The high pressure breaks the rock, and then silica sand and other chemicals are injected in the cracks to allow the natural gas to be piped to the surface.

Large quantities of silica sand are used during hydraulic fracturing (fracking) process. Silica particles are about one-twentieth of the width of a human hair and are a known carcinogenic. Hydraulic fracturing sand contains up to 99% silica. Workers who breathe silica day after day naturally have the highest risk for disease. Sand mover and blender operators, and workers downwind of these operations (especially during hot loading), had the highest silica exposures. Workers upwind and not in the immediate area of sand movers (sand delivery truck spotters) also had exposures above recommended safe levels.

Workers who breathe silica day after day are at greater risk of developing silicosis. Silica can also cause lung cancer and has been linked to other diseases, such as tuberculosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and kidney and autoimmune disease. In the course of the fracking process, sand is delivered by truck and loaded into sand movers and then transferred to conveyor belts. Silica dust is released into the air, causing a hazard to those employees involved in transporting and refilling silica sand into the sand movers, transfer belts, and blender hoppers where the sand is mixed with fracking fluids. NIOSH collected air samples at eleven hydraulic fracturing sites in five states, and many of these air samples showed silica levels which were above the level assumed to be safe for gas drilling workers.

Common symptoms of silicosis include:

  • shortness of breath
  • severe cough
  • weakness
  • Severe cough

If you have silica in your lungs, your body may not be able to fight infections well. This can lead to other illnesses which can cause:

  • Fever
  • Weight loss
  • Night sweats
  • Chest pains
  • Respiratory failure

As the disease progresses over time, these symptoms can become worse.

If you have been diagnosed with silicosis, or a loved one has died of silicosis after years of exposure on the job, you are entitled to seek compensation from the product manufacturer or company responsible for providing a safe workplace. The Robinette Legal Group has a proud record of successfully representing clients who have suffered occupational diseases after working in the mining, manufacturing and materials handling industries throughout West Virginia. Contact our offices to arrange a free consultation about your toxic exposure injury or wrongful death claims: 1-304-594-1800 or after hours, 304-216-6695.

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For more information: OSHA-NIOSH Hazard Alert: "Worker Exposure to Silica During Hydraulic Fracturing."

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