On March 24, 2016, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) published its final workplace exposure standard for crystalline silica. The new rule reduces the permissible exposure limit (PEL) to silica from 100 micrograms per cubic meter for an eight-hour shift to 50 micrograms per cubic meter. The rule, which is the agency’s first updated regulation for silica since 1971, is intended to protect against kidney disease, chronic pulmonary disease, and lung cancer.
Approximately 2.3 workers in U.S. foundries and manufacturing facilities are exposed to crystalline silica, a known human carcinogen found in concrete, sand, soil, and other materials. Silica exposure occurs during tasks that involve cutting, sawing, or crushing materials like concrete, brick and rock. Workers can inhale particles that result in lung diseases such as silicosis, which causes scarring on the lungs and breathing problems.
While the presence of silica in natural building materials, like stone, doesn’t pose a threat to consumer safety, it does have a significant impact on employee’s well-being. OSHA’s new silica rule requires employers to measure silica exposure to ensure workers are protected. The rule covers protective clothing for employees, medical surveillance requirements, engineering controls, and other concerns. The rule is presented as two standards: one for construction and one for general industry and maritime. The requirements of the new regulation, which all companies must comply with by June 23, 2018, include:
- Measuring how much silica each employee is exposed to in a time-weighted eight-hour shift.
- If the silica exposure level is above the acceptable level (25 micrograms per cubic meter for general and maritime and 50 micrograms per cubic meter for construction), protective action must be implemented.
- Limiting access to areas where employees could be overexposed to silica.
- Using dust controls to keep workers’ silica exposure within the PEL.
- Supplying protective masks to workers when dust controls cannot limit exposure to silica.
- Offering regular medical exams (including lung function tests and chest x-rays) to workers exposed to high levels of silica for more than 30 days per year.
- Avoid housekeeping practices that expose workers to silica when alternatives are available.
- Maintaining a log of tasks involving silica exposure and the methods used to protect workers.
- Maintaining good training and record-keeping practices.
- Companies categorized under the construction standard must comply with the new rule by June 23, 2017 (one year earlier than companies that fall under the General and Maritime category).
What The New Silica Rule Means for Your Business
The new silica standard has been met with criticism from many employers, who view the changes as costly, disruptive, and unobtainable. Some argue that OSHA should instead be focusing on new ways to get more companies to comply with the current silica rule. With over 1,500 pages in the rule, OSHA will certainly need to clarify the new requirements as companies prepare to comply with the new standard. In the meantime, now is an excellent time for companies to review their safety practices and see what improvements can be made to protect workers from exposure to silica.