OSHA Releases Final Rule on Silica Exposure Requirements

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued a final rule to protect workers from exposure to respirable crystalline silica. The rule is comprised of two standards, one for Construction (1926.1153) and one for General Industry (1910.1053). Before going into the details of the final rules, here is a review of what crystalline silica is and why a new rule governing exposure to it is being pushed out.

What Is Crystalline Silica?

Crystalline silica is a common mineral that is found in materials that we see every day in roads, buildings, and sidewalks. It is a common component of sand, stone, rock, concrete, brick, and mortar.  Some of the typical workplaces with exposure to crystalline silica include construction, concrete products, foundries, abrasive blasting, etc.

OSHA’s premise for this rule stems from the fact that workers exposed to respirable crystalline silica are at a much higher risk of developing silicosis and other respiratory diseases (e.g. lung cancer and kidney disease). Along with this, the previous rule includes Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs) that were over 40 years old. These PELs were based on outdated studies, and, according to some evidence, did not adequately protect worker health.

What Does This Rule Mean to Me?

The updated standard requires employers in General Industry to:

  • Measure the silica exposure level if it may be at or above the action level of 25 µg/m3
  • Ensure workers are not exposed above the new PEL of 50 µg/m3 average over an 8-hour shift
  • Establish and implement a written exposure control plan
  • Offer medical surveillance to employees exposed between the PEL of 50 µg/m³ and the action level of 25 µg/m³
  • Employers must use engineering controls and work practices as the primary way to keep exposure at or below the PEL

The requirements for engineering control and administrative and work practices, while potentialy very expensive and time consuming to implement, are not a new idea. This follows the hierarchy of controls that industries have been following for years. The hierarchy of controls states that employers are expected to utilize engineering controls and administrative and workplace practices before relying on personal protective equipment (PPE) like respirators to minimize employee exposure to hazards.

Some engineering controls could include wetting down work operations, using vacuums and other local exhaust ventilation, expanding current ventilation systems, etc. Some examples of work and administrative practices to minimize silica exposure include restricting housekeeping practices that expose workers to crystalline silica (i.e. generate more dust), the implementation of a written exposure control plan, employee and management training, etc. The use of respirators and other PPE should only be used when engineering controls and work practices have been exhausted or cannot maintain exposure at or below the PEL.

Often times, facilities would rather skip the hierarchy of controls and just purchase respirators for the employees. One thing to keep in mind about respirators is that they are not as protective as engineering controls, and not always as practical as they may seem. Unless respirators are selected for each worker, individually fitted, regularly refitted, and properly maintained with filters and other parts being replaced as necessary, workers will continue to be exposed to silica. Another thing that should be understood about respirators is that many employees find them uncomfortable, and therefore do not wear them properly. This action of an employee wearing a respirator loosely or otherwise improperly causes the respirator to not be as effective as it should be, and sometimes causes a higher risk to the employee than not wearing a respirator at all.

What Do I Do Next?

Employers covered by the construction standard have until June 23, 2017 to comply with most requirements, while employers in General Industry have until June 23, 2018. Additional time is provided to offer employees medical exams. Also, states with their own OSHA-approved state plans have 6 months to adopt standards that are at least as effective (AKA as strict) as the Federal OSHA standard. In order to ensure that your employees are protected and your facility is in compliance by the effective compliance dates, several things should be done:

  1. Worker exposure to silica at the new PEL should be reliably measured through industrial hygiene and indoor air quality testing.
  2. Train employees on the risks of silica exposure, recognition of work operations that could result in a risk of silica exposure, and mitigation techniques.
  3. Conduct a workplace risk assessment and look at your current engineering controls and work practices to determine if any of these need to be changed or updated. The best way to ensure these are in proper working condition is to conduct indoor air quality testing for respirable crystalline silica and total silica dust levels.

Industry has a strong contention against the new rule in that a large portion of the Construction and General Industry sectors feel that complying with this rule requires an enormous financial investment as compared to the speculative benefits OSHA expects to obtain. However, under the OSH Act, a rule’s viability is not determined based on the economic standpoint of the industries. The determining factor of a rules validity is based on the economic and technological feasibility according to the governing agency, and whether it is considered to be regulating a “significant risk”.

The major impact of OSHA’s new rule is not just the lowering of the PEL, it is that for the first time since the initial rule was published, employers will be required to regularly monitor silica exposure levels and ensure that the facility is doing whatever is necessary to protect the health of worker.

Feel free to contact CTI if you have any questions regarding the updated OSHA standards or if you would like to discuss how to get your facility into compliance with OSHA standards and beyond.

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