Chapter Corner

What You Need to Know About OSHA's New Silica Rule

Posted in: Features, May/June 2016

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently announced a new rule that will better protect workers from the harmful effects of breathing respirable crystalline silica dust. Prevalent at certain workplaces, including construction sites and foundries, the dust can lead to lung cancer, silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and kidney disease.

The new provisions will begin to take effect in June 2017 for the construction industry and June 2018 for maritime and general industry.

SilicaBackground.gifNEW REQUIREMENTS

The rule significantly reduces the amount of silica dust that workers can be exposed to on the job. The permissible exposure limit (PEL) for respirable crystalline silica is now 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over an 8-hour shift.

Employers are required to limit access to high exposure areas, provide training, provide respiratory protection when controls are not enough to limit exposure, provide written exposure control plans, and measure exposures in some cases.

Employers will have to implement controls and work practices that reduce workers exposure to silica dust. For most activities, this means that employers will have to ensure that silica dust is wetted down or vacuumed up so that workers don’t breathe it in.

The rule also requires employers to offer medical examinations to highly-exposed workers. Workers who find they have a related illness can use information to make employment or lifestyle decisions to protect their health.

This rule is based on extensive review of peer-reviewed scientific evidence; current industry consensus standards; an extensive public outreach effort; and nearly a year of public comment, including several weeks of public hearings.

THE NEED FOR CHANGE

Approximately 2.3 million people in the U.S. are exposed to silica at work, including 2 million in the construction industry. That’s a lot of potential worker deaths and illnesses that we want to prevent.

This isn’t a new issue. We have known about the dangers of working around silica for decades. More than 80 years ago, U.S. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins first brought experts and stakeholders together to determine the best ways to protect workers from silica dust.

When OSHA was established in 1971, one of the first hazards the agency issued standards for was silica. However, exposure limits for these standards were based on research from the 1960s and earlier, which do not reflect more recent scientific evidence or show that the current silica exposure limits do not adequately protect worker health.

Workers are still dying or living severely limited lives as a result of silica dust exposure. Most deaths from silicosis deaths is misleading because it does not include additional deaths from other silica-related diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer or kidney disease. 

The technology for most employers to meet the new standards is widely available and affordable, and many employers are already implementing these necessary measures.

FLEXIBILITY FOR THE CONSTRUCTION INDUSTRY

The new silica rule provides common sense, affordable, and flexible strategies for employers to protect workers. Special flexibility is also being provided for the construction industry.

For the most common tasks in construction, OSHA has spelled out exactly how to best protect workers in Table 1*. If employers follow those specifications, they can be sure that they are providing their workers with the required level of protection. Additionally, employers complying Table 1 are not required to measure respirable crystalline silica exposures to verify that levels are at or below the PEL for workers engaged in the specified task.

If employers have better ideas about how to provide protection, they can do that too - as long as they make sure that their methods effectively reduce their workers to silica dust.

HELP IS AVAILABLE

Visit OSHA's silica rule webpage at www.osha.gov/silica for a direct link to Table 1, factsheets, answers to frequently asked questions, and to sign up for email updates on compliance dates and resources. 

OSHA provides help for employers, including technical assistance about effective safety and health programs as well as training and education at www.osha.gov/employers. Resources specifically for small businesses, including information about OSHA's free On-site Consultation Program, can be found at www.osha.gov/smallbusiness.

*: OSHA's "Table 1: Specified Exposure Control Methods When Working With Materials Containing Crystalline Silica" can be accessed with www.osha.gov/silica/SilicaConstructionRegText.pdf.

Sid Holcomb does strategic communications for the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administruction. Prior to joining the Department of Labor as a presidential management fellow in 2012, Holcomb earned a graduate degree in public administration from DePaul University in Chicago. Holcomb's career also includes stints as a small business owner and as an Air Force intelligence analyst.