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After the Dust Settles: OSHA's Final Rule on Crystalline Silica

firefighter-383883_640.jpgWorkplace illnesses tragically take the lives of thousands of workers each year. OSHA recently took steps to fight back against the many diseases impacting America's workforce with its final ruling on crystalline silica. This ruling targets the deadly exposure of crystalline silica and estimates saving over 600 lives and preventing more than 900 new cases of silicosis each year. Since the final ruling, many legal challenges have come forth. 

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, block, and mortar.

Exposures to crystalline silica dust occur in common workplace operations involving cutting, sawing, drilling, and crushing of concrete, brick, block, rock  stone products (such as construction tasks), and operations using sand products (such as in glass manufacturing, foundries, sand blasting, and hydraulic fracturing).

A Brief Overview

Workers who inhale very small crystalline silica particles are at an increased risk of developing serious — and often deadly — silica-related diseases. These tiny particles (known as “respirable” particles) can penetrate deep into workers’ lungs and cause silicosis, an incurable and sometimes fatal lung disease. Crystalline silica exposure also puts workers at risk for developing lung cancer, other potentially debilitating respiratory diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and kidney disease. Approximately 2.3 million people in the U.S. are exposed to silica at work.

To better protect workers from dangerous crystalline silica, OSHA has finalized two new silica standards: one for general industry and maritime, and the other for construction. These rules are based on extensive review of peer-reviewed scientific evidence, current industry consensus standards, an extensive public outreach effort, and nearly a year of public comment, including several weeks of public hearings. They provide commonsense, affordable and flexible strategies for employers to protect workers in their workplaces from the serious risks posed by silica exposure.

Why do we need new silica standards?

We have known about the dangers of silica for decades. More than 80 years ago, U.S. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins first brought experts and stakeholders together to determine the best ways to protect workers from silica.

OSHA’s current permissible exposure limits for silica are more than 40 years old. They are based on research from the 1960s and earlier that do not reflect more recent scientific evidence.

Strong evidence shows that the current exposure limits do not adequately protect worker health. For example, since the current exposure limits were adopted, respirable crystalline silica exposure has been found to cause lung cancer and kidney disease at the levels currently permitted.

Many employers are already implementing the necessary measures to protect their workers from silica exposure. The technology for most employers to meet the new standards is widely available and also affordable.

How will the rule protect workers?

The rule significantly reduces the amount of silica dust that workers can be exposed to on the job. That means that employers will have to implement controls and work practices that reduce workers’ exposure to silica dust. For most activities, that means that employers will have to ensure that silica dust is wetted down or vacuumed up before workers can breathe it in.

Employers are required under the rule to limit access to high exposure areas, provide training, provide respiratory protection when controls are not enough to limit exposure, provide written exposure control plans, and measure exposures in some cases. Employers are also required to offer medical examinations to highly exposed workers. Workers who find out they have an illness, such as lung disease, can use that information to make employment or lifestyle decisions to protect their health.

What industries are affected?

  • Construction
  • Glass manufacturing
  • Pottery products
  • Structural clay products
  • Concrete products
  • Foundries
  • Dental laboratories
  • Paintings and coatings
  • Jewelry production
  • Refractory products
  • Ready-mix concrete
  • Cut stone and stone products
  • Abrasive blasting in maritime, construction, and general industry
  • Refractory furnace installation and repair
  • Railroad transportation
  • Oil and gas operations 

Key Provisions

  • Reduces the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for respirable crystalline silica to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over an 8-hour shift.
  • Requires employers to use engineering controls (such as water or ventilation) to limit worker exposure to the PEL; provide respirators when engineering controls cannot adequately limit exposure; limit worker access to high exposure areas; develop a written exposure control plan, offer medical exams to highly exposed workers, and train workers on silica risks and how to limit exposures.
  • Provides medical exams to monitor highly exposed workers and gives them information about their lung health.
  • Provides flexibility to help employers — especially small businesses — protect workers from silica exposure.

Compliance Schedule

Both standards contained in the final rule take effect on June 23, 2016, after which industries have one to five years to comply with most requirements, based on the following schedule:

Construction - June 23, 2017, one year after the effective date.

General Industry and Maritime - June 23, 2018, two years after the effective date.

Hydraulic Fracturing - June 23, 2018, two years after the effective date for all provisions except Engineering Controls, which have a compliance date of June 23, 2021.

What's Next?

Since the publishing of this final ruling, roughly seven different challenges were filed in six different U.S. federal courts of appeals across the country. Due to the numerous petitions filed in various circuits, OSHA notified the Judicial Panel on Multi-District Litigation to determine by lottery which circuit will be the venue for the consolidated litigation. 

These proceedings will have a major impact on compliance planning and other business considerations, so manufacturers and other regulated entities should watch closely. 

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Topics: Construction