New study highlights silicosis risk from exposure to airborne silica sand at fracking drill sites

by Michael Heygood

Workers at fracking drill sites across the country are at risk of developing silicosis and other diseases as a result of exposure to airborne silica sand, according to a recently published study. The report, published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, found that levels of airborne silica sand at hydraulic fracturing drill sites exceeded federal safety standards at all 11 sites that were tested by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

The health effects of exposure to airborne silica sand are severe. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), inhaling silica dust increases the risk of developing respiratory diseases such as silicosis and lung cancer. Exposure to silica has also been linked to an increased risk of other diseases, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), tuberculosis, kidney disease, and autoimmune diseases. OSHA and NIOSH issued a warning about the dangers of exposure to airborne silica in June 2012.

Hydraulic fracturing—or “fracking”—is a drilling technique used to access oil and natural gas deposits that are trapped within shale or other rock formations. After a well has been drilled, huge quantities of water, chemicals known as fracking fluids, and silica sand are pumped beneath the ground, causing small cracks, or fractures, to form in the rock. The silica sand contained in this mixture serves as a proppant that holds these fractures open, allowing the oil or natural gas that was trapped inside to flow to the surface.

Researchers in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene study measured levels of airborne silica sand at 11 fracking sites in Arkansas, Colorado, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Texas. More than 100 breathing zone samples were collected from these sites. All 11 of these fracking sites were found to have levels of airborne silica that exceeded NIOSH and OSHA safety standards.

The level of airborne silica dust at these sites is stunning:

  • Nearly half of the samples collected showed levels of airborne silica in excess of OSHA safety limits;
  • More than 75% of samples exceeded NIOSH recommended exposure levels;
  • One out of every 11 samples contained levels of airborne silica sand that were 10 times the maximum limit set by OSHA ;
  • One in three samples were 10 times the NIOSH recommended limit, including one sample that was 100 times the maximum level.

These high levels of airborne silica found at fracking sites pose a significant health risk to workers who are employed at these oil and natural gas drilling sites. Yet, despite these risks, many drilling companies fail to provide their workers with respirators or other safety equipment that is adequate to protect them from the dangers of exposure to silica.

Lawsuits Against Fracking Companies

Workers who have developed silicosis or other respiratory diseases after being exposed to airborne silica at a fracking drilling site may be eligible to file a lawsuit against the companies that were responsible for their exposure. Drilling companies who operate fracking sites have a duty to protect their workers from the health effects of exposure to silica sand. When they fail to do so, they should be held accountable in a court of law.

The law firm of Heygood, Orr & Pearson was founded on the principle that everyone—including workers who are hurt on the job and victims of dangerous drugs or other defective products— should have access to experienced legal counsel. Our firm is AV-rated, the highest possible ranking from Martindale-Hubbell, the leading organization for law firm ratings. Our partners Michael Heygood, Jim Orr, and Eric Pearson have been voted by their peers as “Super Lawyers” in the state of Texas for several years in a row.*

If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with silicosis, lung cancer, or other respiratory illnesses after being exposed to airborne silica sand at a fracking site, you may be eligible to file a lawsuit against the oil and drilling company that may have been responsible for your injuries. Our law firm has years of experience handling workplace injury cases, and will work to ensure that your rights are protected.

For a free legal consultation and to find out if you are eligible to file a fracking lawsuit over silica exposure, contact the attorneys at Heygood, Orr & Pearson by calling toll-free at 1-877-446-9001. You can also reach us by filling out the brief consultation form located at the top of this page.


Michael Heygood, James Craig Orr, Jr. and Eric Pearson were selected to the Super Lawyers List, a Thomson Reuters publication, for the years 2003 through 2013.

by Michael Heygood

Michael Heygood is a licensed attorney and partner at HO&P who focuses on insurance and corporate litigation, and other civil arenas. Michael has been named multiple times to the Super Lawyers List.