Silica is a major component of rock, sand, and ores; it is the second most common mineral in the earth’s crust. Despite its commonness, when inhaled as a fine particle, silica is a highly toxic substance.
For miners in the oil and gas industry, chemical exposure to silica dust is a serious threat. Approximately two million members of the U.S. labor force are estimated to face regular exposure to silica dust in their work – all of them are at an increased risk of developing silicosis.
Silicosis is caused by inhaling tiny particles of silica that have crystallized. Over time, these silica particles can create scar tissue and cause fluid buildup in the lungs, impairing the silicosis sufferers ability to breathe. Levels of silica exposure and a variety of other factors affect the rate at which silicosis develops. While it may be only a matter of weeks before symptoms manifest, silicosis sometimes does not occur until ten or more years after exposure.
Chemical exposure to silica is relatively common among oil and gas workers because drilling, blasting or otherwise disturbing the earth can cause a cloud of silica particles to be released into the air. Protective measures, like dust control systems and the use of respirators, do help shield oil workers from the effects of silica dust. Nevertheless, dozens of Americans still die every year from occupational silica exposure.
There is no cure for silicosis. However, with treatment, many people with silicosis live for years. For those who have developed silicosis due to job-related chemical exposure, workers’ compensation may be available to help pay for medical expenses, lost wages and, in the event of death, survivor’s benefits; a third-party lawsuit could also yield additional monetary compensation.