The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

More Work Needed on OSHA’s Proposed Silica Rule

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted February 18, 2014

The oil and natural gas industry is committed to the safety of highly trained workers who are helping lead America’s energy renaissance. That’s why – while questioning some of the analysis underlying proposed new limits on breathable crystalline silica in the workplace – industry will work with government officials on a final rule that’s workable, protects workers and helps build on industry’s safety record.

That record is a strong one. Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows incidence rates for oil and natural gas extraction and support activities are lower than the private industry rate, the mining industry rate (excluding oil and gas) and the overall Natural Resources and Mining rate. Below, one of the official comments submitted by API and the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which has proposed the new crystalline silica rule:

While the Associations and their members will never be satisfied with any incidence rate that exceeds 0.0, we believe that our industry’s occupational health and safety efforts are bearing fruit. Member companies of the Associations have extensive safety programs in place and also work through trade associations to increase workforce safety through research, information sharing, training, and through the development of standards.

At issue is OSHA’s proposal to set new permissible exposure limits (PELs) on respirable crystalline silica – the second most abundant mineral in the earth’s crust and the primary ingredient in beach sand, but whose smaller particles can be inhaled as dust.

The new rule would mandate three separate and significant reductions:

  • Reduce the PEL by 50 percent from its current level.
  • Institute an “action level” that is 75 percent lower than the current PEL. This would trigger a range of new requirements including exposure assessments, training and medical surveillance for those exposed for 30 or more days per year.
  • Employ a different respirable convention that would reduce both the proposed PEL and action level an additional 20 percent.

According to the Occupational Safety Act (OSH), OSHA must show the health and risk benefits of a proposed rule as well as its technological feasibility and impact to the overall economy.

Among the points made in industry comments on the proposal:

  • In terms of health and risk benefits, OSHA’s modeling efforts conflict with actual Center for Disease Control statistics that show more than a 90 percent decline in silica-related mortality under the current PEL.
  • There’s a very real question as to whether many labs – even those accredited by the American Industrial Hygiene Association – can accurately, consistently and reliably measure silica at the extremely low concentrations that would be required under OSHA’s proposed rule.
  • OSHA’s analysis of how the rule would impact hydraulic fracturing was essentially tacked onto a rule that has been in the making for more than a decade. It contained substantially less information than OSHA considered with respect to other industries and relied on a number of false assumptions, including largely unproven control technologies that cannot be used together and are not yet commercially available.

From industry’s comments:

Although these comments question significant elements of OSHA’s analysis, they do not challenge OSHA’s important goal of protecting workers from excessive RCS exposures. The Associations and their members share OSHA’s commitment to occupational health and safety and look forward to OSHA’s thorough consideration of the comments set forth below. … The Proposed Rule is not supported by substantial evidence. Further, many of the policy determinations that OSHA proposed based on this inadequate record are arbitrary and capricious. While, as explained in ACC’s comments, these failures to meet OSH Act requirements pervade the entire rulemaking, they are most pronounced and most deficient within OSHA’s rushed analysis of the hydraulic fracturing industry. … As such, the Associations strongly recommend that OSHA refrain from finalizing this rule as proposed until it has sufficient information on which to base a rulemaking and provides the opportunity for public comment on that new information.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.