More than 40 years after NIOSH and OSHA first proposed reducing exposures to silica, OSHA has finally issued a rule that will significantly reduce worker exposures to this harmful dust. Respirable crystalline silica dust causes lung cancer, silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and kidney disease. OSHA estimates that the rule will save more than 600 lives and prevent over 900 new cases of silicosis each year.
“This rule is a welcome step forward for the hardworking men and women of LIUNA and the entire construction industry,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “LIUNA and its allies have worked tirelessly to achieve a strong standard that protects workers from silica-related diseases.”
The rule is scheduled to go into effect in the construction industry on June 23, 2016, although enforcement won’t begin until June 23, 2017. (Fracking operators in the oil and gas industry will have additional time to comply.) Although pending lawsuits may delay the new regulation, the strength of the scientific evidence behind the standard should convince any court to keep the rule in place.
The final rule contains many of the provisions that the LHSFNA advocated for during OSHA’s silica hearings in March of 2015. In the end, OSHA put forth a comprehensive standard that also takes into account the unique nature of construction. For example, it’s now possible to entirely avoid air monitoring, which has always been difficult in construction due to tasks often changing from day to day.
Here is a brief summary of the new silica standard and what it requires:
- Exposure limit: The new permissible exposure limit (PEL) is 50 µg/m3 averaged over eight hours; the old PEL was 250 µg/m3 over eight hours.
- Table 1: Employers who choose to follow Table 1 (engineering, work practice controls and respirator requirements for 18 operations known to cause high exposures to silica) do not have to conduct sampling or ensure employees are exposed below the PEL.
- Compliance: If employers don’t follow Table 1, they have two options when exposures may exceed the action level (AL) of 25 µg/m3 averaged over eight hours:
- Performance option: Use “objective data” or sampling to determine which tasks are likely to cause exposure over the AL.
- Scheduled sampling: Perform initial sampling to determine which tasks cause exposure above the AL, then conduct periodic sampling afterwards.
In all three methods, employers must implement engineering controls and work practices before respirators are used. For more details on the options available to employers, check out our silica flowchart.
In addition to instituting dust controls when exposures exceed the PEL, there are several mandatory actions employers must follow when exposures exceed the AL:
- Exposure control plan: A written plan is required and must be implemented by a competent person.
- Medical exams: Exams have to be made available (at no cost to employees) to anyone who must wear a respirator for 30 or more days a year due to silica exposure (unless workers had a comparable exam in the past three years).
- Training: Employers must include silica exposure in their Hazard Communication program and relay information on its effects and procedures to prevent overexposure.
- Cleaning: A high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) vacuum and/or the use of wet methods is required. Compressed air, dry sweeping and dry brushing are prohibited (unless infeasible).
- Recordkeeping: Records must be kept of air monitoring data, objective data and medical/exposure surveillance data.
Once the rule goes into effect, controls like water and local exhaust ventilation will make it easy for both workers and employers to ensure they are in compliance. The risk for diseases caused by silica exposure will finally be dramatically reduced. It’s taken many years, and too many workers have suffered along the way, but this rule ensures that the next generation of construction workers will have safer, healthier and hopefully longer careers in construction than those who came before them.
The Fund offers many publications to help contractors and members understand the dangers of silica and prevent harmful exposures. They include the Controlling Silica Exposure in Construction pamphlet, the Silicosis Health Alert and the What Physicians Need to Know About Silicosis handout.
The Fund also maintains a Silica web page that includes additional resources to help contractors reduce exposures on their job sites. The LHSFNA’s Occupational Safety & Health Division is available and ready to help LIUNA signatory contractors come into compliance with this new rule. For assistance or guidance, contact the OSH Division’s professional staff at 202-628-5465.
[Scott Schneider is the LHSFNA’s Director of Occupational Safety and Health.]