- Features | June 1, 2016
What You Need to Know About OSHA's New Silica Rule
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.
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