The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has proposed a rule to protect workers exposed to silica, including those involved in hydraulic fracturing that uses silica, or sand, as a proppant.

“Exposure to silica can be deadly, and limiting that exposure is essential,” said David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health. “Every year, exposed workers not only lose their ability to work but also to breathe. This proposal is expected to prevent thousands of deaths from silicosis-an incurable and progressive disease-as well as lung cancer, other respiratory diseases and kidney disease. We’re looking forward to public comment on the proposal.”

Once the full effects of the rule are realized, OSHA estimates that the proposed rule would result in saving nearly 700 lives per year and prevent 1,600 new cases of silicosis annually.

Exposure to airborne silica dust occurs in operations involving cutting, sawing, drilling and crushing of concrete, brick, block and other stone products and in operations using sand products, such as in glass manufacturing, foundries and sand blasting.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recently looked into silica and hydraulic fracturing activities specifically. It found that fracking operations expose workers to silica dust when it is:

In recent months, silica dust generated by sand mining operations meeting demand for frack sand has raised concern among residents and municipalities where the operations are located. Wisconsin and Minnesota are considered to be the heart of frack sand country, and officials there have turned their attention to sand mining operations (see Shale Daily, Aug. 23).

The proposed OSHA rulemaking includes two separate standards-one for general industry and maritime employment, and one for construction. The agency currently enforces 40-year-old permissible exposure limits for crystalline silica in general industry, construction and shipyards that are outdated, inconsistent between industries and do not adequately protect worker health, it said. The proposed rule brings protections into the 21st century.

After publication of the proposal, the public will have 90 days to submit written comments, followed by public hearings.