By Scott Schneider
After decades of discussion and bureaucratic red tape, OSHA finally issued a proposed standard to protect workers from silica on August 23, 2013.
Occurring naturally as sand or quartz, silica is commonly used in a variety of industrial settings. It is a key component of concrete, and its dust is a long-recognized hazard for construction workers. When inhaled, it can cause silicosis, a progressive lung disease. In 1997, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) definitively labeled silica a cancer-causing agent.
For decades, OSHA has maintained an exposure limit for silica, but it is way too high, out of date and uses an obsolete measurement method.
The proposed rule would reduce the allowable exposure limit to about one-fifth of what is currently allowed, but more importantly, OSHA is proposing a task-based control standard (as it has done with lead and asbestos) wherein certain operations known to produce high exposures will require the use of wet methods or local ventilation. These controls are known to significantly reduce exposures.
The standard would also require:
- Regulated areas to keep out unauthorized employees
- Exposure monitoring
- Supplementary respiratory protection for high exposure tasks
- Housekeeping requirements to vacuum dust and not blow it around during cleanup
- Periodic medical exams for workers exposed over the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for 30+ days/year
- Training of workers on the hazards of silica
- Keeping records of exposures and medical exams
A more detailed LHSFNA summary of the standard’s provisions is here. The steps to a standard are detailed and time-consuming. OSHA has established a webpage on the silica rulemaking process. It also has prepared a fact sheet on the proposed rule.
Now that the proposal has been published, it may take up to two more years to finalize it. After it is formally announced in the Federal Register this month, comments will be solicited for 90 days. Public hearings will be held next March. There, the goal is to collect the best information about the safety and feasibility of the proposal. Those who testify have the opportunity to question any other testifiers, so it is a very open process. Hearings can last several days or even weeks.
Following the hearings, OSHA allows another 30 to 60 days for participants to submit additional comments and evidence for the record, often in response to questions at the hearing. Attorneys have another 30 days to file briefs. OSHA then takes all the information submitted and develops the final rule.
[Scott Schneider is the LHSFNA’s Director of Occupational Safety and Health.]