Frac Sand: Occupational Hazards Of Industrial Sand Use

Documentaries such as FrackNation and Gasland have highlighted many of the environmental dangers of hydraulic fracking. The primary dangers are the contamination of groundwater and the emission of air pollutants.

In addition to the environmental dangers, the thousands of industrial workers who work on fracking sites on a daily basis are also at risk of serious injury or death in the event of a catastrophic accident. Common causes of accidents on fracking sites such as the Eagle Ford shale in Texas, the Bakken shale in North Dakota, or the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania include blowouts, defective equipment, vehicle collisions, and employer failures to meet a number of safety standards. All of these types of accidents are common, not only in the fracking industry but in the energy industry at large.

Specific to the fracking industry is an often overlooked occupational hazard that may come from the use of industrial sand or "frac sand." Unlike the sand you would find naturally at the beach, frac sand is almost 100% crystalline silica and is specially produced and a vital part of fracking operations. In order to stabilize the wells in preparation for the injection of water and other chemicals, frac sand is first pumped to produce petroleum fluids from rock units that do not have adequate space for the oil or natural gas to flow to a well.

About Frac Sand

Hydraulic fracturing is accomplished by pumping large quantities of water treated with chemicals and thickeners at extremely high pressures into subsurface rock formations. This creates fractures in the rocks, but these must be propped open so petroleum fluids can flow through. The fractures will contract slightly, but a “proppant” must be used to keep them open enough for the well to produce. Frac sand is considered an ideal proppant because its silica sand grains are round and durable, allowing for the passage of oil and gas without the fractures closing all the way.

There are different grain sizes of frac sand available, depending on the type of job it is used for. While grain sizes may range from 0.1 to more than 2 millimeters in diameter, most frac sand in the petroleum industry ranges from 0.4 to 0.8 millimeters. Billions of these sand grains may be pressed into fractures at a single well site.

Mining for frac sand is accomplished by removing the topsoil or subsoil that lies on top of the rich silica sand located primarily in the Midwest near the Great Lakes. Once the topsoil and subsoil are removed, they are piled into large mounds called berms. Next, the sand is excavated, sometimes using blasting if it is densely packed and cemented in place. To be most effective as a proppant in hydrofracking operations, frac sand grains must be of the same size and shape. So, the final steps are to wash, dry, and sort the frac sand at a plant designed for these specific purposes.

Millions of tons of frac sand are used in U.S. hydrofracking operations each year. In 2017, it is estimated that 50 billion pounds of frac sand were used in the Permian Basin alone. Industrial sand is now a billion-dollar industry.

Exposure To Industrial Sand

A 2012 report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) revealed that the use of industrial sand exposes workers to an unacceptably high level of silica. The report reveals the results of air samples taken by the NIOSH in 11 different fracking sites in Arkansas, Colorado, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Samples from each site showed that exposure to crystalline silica "consistently exceeded relevant occupational criteria." The magnitude of the exposure was so great that the study concluded that even workers who were wearing protective masks would still not be sufficiently protected.

How Widespread Is Frac Sand Exposure?

The NIOSH estimates that there are roughly 435,000 workers involved in the exploration and production of oil and gas extraction, with half of those workers employed by companies who engage in fracking operations. However, only the drilling phase of the fracking operations put workers at risk of high levels of silica and it is unknown how many workers are employed in that process of the operations.

We must also consider workers that are involved in producing frac sand. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the United States is the largest producer and consumer of frac sand across the planet. 70% of U.S. frac sand production in 2014 occurred in the Great Lakes Region. Domestic frac sand production and consumption have increased steadily since 2004, along with increases in hydraulic fracturing operations across the country. A single well may use about 10,000 tons of frac sand during the hydraulic fracturing process.

Dangers of High Exposure to Silica

High levels of silica exposure – particularly over long periods of time – put workers at increased risk of developing:

  • Silicosis
  • Lung cancer
  • Chronic obstructive respiratory disease
  • Bronchitis
  • Tuberculosis
  • Renal disease
  • Respiratory failure

While the immediate dangers of being harmed by heavy machinery are always at the forefront of industrial workers' minds, the often unseen long-term health risks of continued exposure to silica could be a bigger danger. The latency period for silica exposure can be extremely long. On average, a person is not formally diagnosed (often showing no symptoms) with silicosis until 28 years after the initial exposure.

If you have been diagnosed with silicosis, lung cancer, or another respiratory disease as a result of toxic exposure, contact our attorneys today.

Contact Us

Get Started with a Free Consultation

  • Please enter your first name.
  • Please enter your last name.
  • This isn't a valid email address.
    Please enter your email address.
  • This isn't a valid phone number.
    Please enter your phone number.
  • Please make a selection.
  • Please make a selection.
  • Please enter a message.