In a landmark move, California’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal/OSHA) adopted new silica safety rules last month that overcome gaps long left by federal OSHA.

The revised standard protects masonry workers from silica exposure by requiring engineering controls to prevent inhalation of hazardous dust released during common jackhammer and concrete saw operations. Augmenting more typical PPE (personal protective equipment) protections, the California initiative  may become a model for other states as well.

While federal OSHA has an outdated permissible exposure limit (PEL) for silica, it has yet to establish a comprehensive health standard. The new California rules require dust reduction through task-based controls such as wet cutting and local exhaust ventilation.

One of the most common hazards in construction, crystalline silica is found in brick, concrete, cement mortar, rock, sand and other building materials. Workers can breathe in the silica when it is released into the air. The particles lodge in the lungs and cause inflammation and scarring, known as silicosis. High levels of silica exposure – or low levels of exposure over an extended period of time – can cause this debilitating disease. Silica is also a known cause of lung cancer.

Due to its toxicity, many in the construction field are seeking stronger workplace protections. For example, the New Jersey Silica Partnership, spearheaded by the New Jersey Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund, was formed in response to rising concerns over silica dust. After noting that jackhammer operations created dangerous dust exposure, the partnership devised a “dust eliminator.” The wet control model reduced dust by 70 percent and reduced silica exposure by 78 percent. This retrofit technology is detailed in NIOSH’s report, Water Spray Control of Hazardous Dust When Breaking Concrete with a Jackhammer.

Silica dust remains a hazard on many worksites. The Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America has several publications to educate Laborers and signatory contractors on the dangers of silica and silicosis such as Controlling Silica Exposure in Construction and What Physicians Need to Know about Silicosis in Construction, Demolition and Renovation. Signatory contractors and members can order these and other related material online.

[Jennifer E. Jones]