Could silica be slowly killing you? What Hydraulic Fracturing Workers Need to Know

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) are becoming increasingly concerned with reports of injuries and illness related to respirable crystalline silica. This type of fine particle is often a byproduct of hydraulic fracturing operations, also known as “fracking.”

What You Need to Know About Respirable Crystalline Silica

Silica is a natural material that occurs in the Earth’s crust, making up substances such as quartz.

Silica is primarily found in:

  • sand;
  • clay; and
  • stone. 


Silica can be used in the manufacture of many common products such as concrete, brick, and glass. Respirable crystalline silica is silica that is broken down into microscopic particles fine enough for workers to inhale and enter the gas-exchange regions of the lungs, notes an OSHA Hazard Alert.

When silica enters the lungs, it can cause a condition known as silicosis. This type of lung disease traps silica particles in the lung tissue, causing lung inflammation and scarring.

Over time, the scarring and inflammation can reduce the lungs’ ability to take in oxygen. Silica may also cause lung cancer and may be associated with other lung diseases such as tuberculosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), as well as diseases of the kidneys and immune system, according to OSHA.

There are three levels of silicosis:

  • chronic;
  • accelerated; and
  • acute. 


Chronic silicosis occurs after 10 to 20 years of moderate exposure and is the most common type of the disease. Symptoms of chronic silicosis may not be obvious, so doctors may use chest x-rays to determine if lung damage is present.

Some signs of chronic silicosis include:

  • shortness of breath;
  • fatigue; and
  • cough. 


Accelerated silicosis occurs after five to 10 years of high exposure to silica, producing symptoms similar to chronic silicosis that progress more rapidly. Finally, acute silicosis occurs suddenly after only a few months or years following exposure to extremely high amounts of silica.

The symptoms of acute silicosis includes:

  • severe shortness of breath;
  • weight loss; and
  • weakness, which progress rapidly and often result in disability or death. 

Fracking Workers Can Take Action

NIOSH collected air samples from 11 fracking sites across five states to measure silica exposure for workers at the sites. Of the 116 samples collected, 47% showed exposure levels greater than the Permissible Exposure Limits (PEL) as defined by OSHA. Seventy-nine percent of the samples showed exposure levels greater than the NIOSH Recommended Exposure Limit (REL).

These conditions are unacceptable and OSHA has guidelines to help protect workers and minimize their risk of exposure. Fracking operations should perform regular monitoring of the atmospheric conditions in the workplace to ensure the silica levels do not exceed the PEL or REL.

Employers should provide their workers with approved respiratory protection such as respirators and allow adequate breaks for fresh air. The layout of the worksite and additional ventilation can also keep the toxic dust away from workers.

Workplace injuries include illnesses caused by environmental conditions at jobsites, and workers should report silica-related illnesses to a supervisor or manager as soon as possible. Workers’ compensation insurance should address these illnesses.

At Chalik & Chalik we know that an honest, hard-working fracker deserves the best of care when his or her job causes an unexpected illness such as silicosis. If you or your loved one has developed silicosis, lung cancer, or any other disease related to silica exposure, we are here to help. Call us at 855-529-0269 or reach out to us via our contact form.