The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) in 2016 published a final ruling on “Occupational Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica.”
The rule is written as two standards: one for construction and the other for general industry and maritime. It reduces the current permissible exposure limits (PEL) of respirable crystalline silica to 50 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3) of air, averaged over an eight-hour shift.
The new rule, which lowers the limits established in 1971 of 250 micrograms for construction and 100 micrograms for general industry, is now in-line with the limit recommended in 1974 by the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health. The OSHA ruling is one of the most comprehensive health standards ever issued for the construction industry.
Respirable crystalline silica (4 microns or less) is a known carcinogen of the lungs that is commonly found in many building materials, including cement, concrete, granite, sand and soil. Workers performing common construction tasks can inhale silica particles at least 100 times smaller than ordinary sand. Exposure to these fine particles is associated with serious and potential fatal health effects including silicosis, lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Full enforcement with OSHA’s respirable crystalline silica rule for general industry and maritime begins on June 23, 2018. The rule is already in effect for the construction industry, which began being enforced in October of last year. Hydraulic fracking operations in the oil and gas industry will have until June 23, 2021 to implement engineering controls to limit exposures to the new PEL.
Under the new rule, employers are required to:
- Use engineering controls (such as wet methods/water, HEPA vacuuming or local exhaust ventilation) and other work practices as the primary way to limit worker exposure
- Provide respirators when engineering controls do not provide adequate protection
- Limit worker access to high-exposure areas
- Train workers on exposure risks and protection
- Provide medical exams to monitor the health of highly exposed workers and provide information about lung health
- Develop a written exposure control plan that describes methods used to identify and control workplace exposures
The construction standard requires a “competent person” be assigned to implement the plan. Construction employers may use a control method found in Table 1 in the construction standard or take action to measure workers’ exposure and independently decide which controls would most effectively limit exposure.
Employers who correctly follow Table 1 recommendations are not required to measure workers’ exposure and are not subject to the PEL. Employers who opt to develop their own methods must:
- measure the amount of silica to which workers are exposed if levels may be at or above 25 micrograms averaged over an eight-hour shift
- implement dust controls to protect workers from exposures above the PEL.
The rule states that employers must provide medical exams every three years for workers exposed above the PEL for 30 or more days per year. The written opinion from the exam must contain:
- The date of the exam
- A statement that the exam has specifically checked for silica exposure
- Any recommended limitations on the employee’s exposure to respirable crystalline silica
- A review of the patient’s medical and work history
- A physical examination at baseline and every three years thereafter
- TB testing
- Pulmonary function testing administered by a NIOSH-certified spirometry technician
- Chest X-ray
OSHA estimates the new rule, once fully implemented, will save more than 600 lives and prevent 900 new cases of silicosis annually. The agency estimates average annual compliance costs will be $1,500 per employer and less than $600 for small firms. The annual $1 billion cost to industry is projected by OSHA to be offset by net benefits of about $7.7 billion. The National Association of Manufacturers, among other industry groups, have suggested costs are underestimated. The National Federation of Independent Business estimates the new rule will cost the economy $7.2 billion a year and 27,000 jobs over 10 years.
Questions & Answers
OSHA has compiled a list of 27 Frequently Asked Questions. Below is an aggregate of some additional FAQs.
What employees are exempt from complying with the rule?
Employers who have established that the silica in their workplace stays beneath certain levels are exempt from the new rule. The rule would not apply to employers in the general, maritime and construction industries that have objective data demonstrating that workers’ exposure to respirable crystalline silica will remain below 25 micrograms per cubic meter averaged during an employee’s 8-hour work day.
What training should employees receive?
OSHA’s training requirements under the new rule are performance-based. During an OSHA investigation, employees should be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the following topics:
- Health hazards associated with exposure to respirable crystalline silica
- Workplace tasks that can result in exposure
- Steps their employers has taken to protect employees from exposure
- Sections of the rule that are pertinent to their industry (construction, general or maritime)
- The purpose of the medical surveillance program
Workers in the construction industry also must be able to identify the competent person designated by their employer to implement their organization’s written control plan.
Does the medical surveillance open up our company to lawsuits?
OSHA explicitly states that the “purpose of medical surveillance is not to identify which employer is responsible for illnesses resulting” from respirable crystalline silica exposures or identify which employer must offer financial compensation.
How can we measure the level of respirable crystalline silica at our site?
A trained specialist, such as a certified industrial hygienist, will use a combination device called a cyclone assembly and a sampling pump to trap tiny respirable silica particles (4 microns or less) from the air in the work environment. The cyclone assembly and sampling pump will be placed on employees, who will wear the device throughout the work shift for up to 8 hours. The hygienist will return at the end of the sampling period to de-activate the sampling pump and remove the filters to be sent for analysis.
Whose responsibility is it to track employees 30 days per year exposure threshold?
OSHA does not provide a proscribed system or method for tracking which employees have accrued days of exposure, but it does make clear that it is at all times the employer’s responsibility to track which employees are exposed. It is likely that an OSHA inspector will want to see that the employer has some kind of tracking system in place that involves more than employees self-monitoring.
Are there tools in the marketplace to help me meet these requirements?
Safety Indicators cloud-based safety management software can serve as a repository for all the medical surveillance data and documentation that employers are required to maintain under the new rule. The easy-to-use software gives you the ability to track and report exposures, employee work histories, days accrued toward testing thresholds and any other pertinent information that employers must provide in order to comply with the new standards.