Public Health Resources


Date of this Version



Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, 10: 347–356; ISSN: 1545-9624 print / 1545-9632 online; DOI: 10.1080/15459624.2013.788352


This report describes a previously uncharacterized occupational health hazard: work crew exposures to respirable crystalline silica during hydraulic fracturing. Hydraulic fracturing involves high pressure injection of large volumes of water and sand, and smaller quantities of well treatment chemicals, into a gas or oil well to fracture shale or other rock formations, allowing more efficient recovery of hydrocarbons from a petroleum-bearing reservoir. Crystalline silica (“frac sand”) is commonly used as a proppant to hold open cracks and fissures created by hydraulic pressure. Each stage of the process requires hundreds of thousands of pounds of quartz containing sand; millions of pounds may be needed for all zones of a well. Mechanical handling of frac sand creates respirable crystalline silica dust, a potential exposure hazard for workers. Researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health collected 111 personal breathing zone samples at 11 sites in five states to evaluate worker exposures to respirable crystalline silica during hydraulic fracturing. At each of the 11 sites, full-shift samples exceeded occupational health criteria (e.g., the Occupational Safety and Health Administration calculated permissible exposure limit, the NIOSH recommended exposure limit, or the ACGIH threshold limit value), in some cases, by 10 or more times the occupational health criteria. Based on these evaluations, an occupational health hazard was determined to exist for workplace exposures to crystalline silica. Seven points of dust generation were identified, including sand handling machinery and dust generated from the work site itself. Recommendations to control exposures include product substitution (when feasible), engineering controls or modifications to sand handling machinery, administrative controls, and use of personal protective equipment. To our knowledge, this represents the first systematic study of work crew exposures to crystalline silica during hydraulic fracturing. Companies that conduct hydraulic fracturing using silica sand should evaluate their operations to determine the potential for worker exposure to respirable crystalline silica and implement controls as necessary to protect workers.

[Supplementary materials are available for this article. Go to the publisher’s online edition of Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene for the following free supplemental resource: a file containing controls and recommendations to limit worker exposures to respirable crystalline silica at hydraulic fracturing work sites.]