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OSHA Still Serious About Silica in the Fracking Industry

When asked to speak on safety and OSHA issues at Vinson & Elkins’ Eighth Annual Hydraulic Fracturing Symposium last week, I knew that one subject would dominate my presentation. Much like the PSM standard, which became the primary concern of refiners and chemical companies after OSHA stepped up its enforcement of PSM compliance following the 2005 explosions at BP’s refineries in Texas City, there is no question that the new silica standard is becoming the most significant challenge for health and safety managers in the fracking business (see our previous silica standard coverage here).

While the Permissible Exposure Limit (“PEL”) for respirable crystalline was reduced from 100 to 50 micrograms per cubic meter in June 2016, it wasn’t until this summer when most of the requirements of the standard went into effect for the fracking industry. If there was a single message that I tried to convey to the participants at the symposium, it was this: “Don’t expect the Silica Standard to go away … even taking into account the Trump administration’s deregulatory efforts.”

Because OSHA has already been issuing silica standard citations for the last year in the construction industry, I have a pretty good idea about what OSHA inspectors will be looking for when they inspect fracking sites. First and foremost, employers should have already assessed the 8-hour time weighted average exposure for all employees who may be reasonably exposed. Even if they did the assessment, employers should expect OSHA to do its own. (If an employer’s numbers are substantially lower, it will be starting off on the wrong foot with its inspector).

OSHA is also likely to cite employers for having inadequate — or failing to have any — written exposure planning, and for failing to provide workers the required training, respiratory protection, and medical surveillance.

The good news is that fracking operations will not be required to provide engineering controls to limit exposures until June 23, 2021. But if a company is really serious about meeting this deadline, it will need to start evaluating its options now. This is not something that can be left to the last minute. Safety and production managers also need to alert management to the additional costs that will be incurred as a result of having to install these new engineering controls.

In the long run, the silica standard may actually save companies money by lowering employee illness rates and increasing the life of company drilling equipment. In the beginning, however, compliance is likely to be burdensome and costly.

This information is provided by Vinson & Elkins LLP for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended, nor should it be construed, as legal advice.