OSHA Issues Controversial Final Rule On Silica Dust Exposure

silicaThe Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) finally issued its final rule for occupational exposure to respirable crystalline silica this morning. The final rule has two standards, one for general industry and maritime and the other for construction, as expected. The proposed rule was issued back in September 2013. There have been quite a few changes made to the final rule from what was proposed two and a half years ago.

Silica, also known as silicon dioxide, is a chemical compound that occurs in nature as a basic component of sand and quartz. Respirable crystalline is created during work operations involving stone, rock, concrete, brick, block, mortar and industrial sand. The current rule, put in place in 1971, set permissible exposure limits (PELs) for crystalline silica in general industry, construction and shipyards. OSHA claims these levels are outdated, inconsistent between industries and do not adequately protect worker health.

Inhalation of crystalline silica dust can lead to bronchitis, silicosis and lung cancer. Silicosis is an occupational lung disease that can cause scarring of the upper lobes of the lung, inflammation and fluid buildup. There is no cure for silicosis as it is an irreversible condition however treatment is available to improve lung function and reduce inflammation. Sufferers of silicosis also have a higher susceptibility to contracting tuberculosis.

The final rule reduces the current PEL of respirable crystalline silica from 250 micrograms per cubic meter of air (μg/m3) averaged over an 8-hour period down to 50 μg/m3. OSHA claims the new rule will save the lives of 642 employees and prevent 918 cases of moderate-to-sever silicosis a year across all industries. It’s estimated that approximately 2.0 million construction workers will be affected by the final rule.

In the proposed rule, the construction standard laid out engineering and work practice control methods for 13 specific tasks that could be used to avoid having to monitor the air for silica levels. In the final rule, those 13 tasks have been expanded to 18 and also includes any required respiratory protection and minimum assigned protection factors. OSHA has acknowledged that conducting exposure assessments can be burdensome which is why they are emphasizing the use control methods as opposed to the alternative exposure control methods which would require either a performance option or a scheduled monitoring option. As long as employers fully and properly implement the prescribed controls, they won’t have to demonstrate compliance with the PEL since those controls provide an equivalent level of protection.

Other requirements in the construction standard include having a written exposure control plan that will be implemented by a competent person who will conduct regular and frequent inspection of jobsites, materials and equipment. The standard covers all occupational exposures to respirable crystalline silica in construction work where the action level will be met. The action level is 25 μg/m3 as a time-weighted average of 8 hours under foreseeable conditions. As with all other Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), employers are required to provide appropriate respirators to employees when they are required to use them. Employees who use a respirator for 30 or more days a year are entitled to employer-provided medical surveillance.  There are also requirements for hazard communication, training and recordkeeping. 

Shortly after OSHA announced the proposed rule back in 2013, a group of 11 national construction industry trade organizations announced the formation of the Construction Industry Safety Coalition in order to oppose the proposed rule. The coalition quickly grew to 25 organizations and includes the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), Associated General Contractors (AGC), American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), International Council of Employers of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers (ICE) and the Mason Contractors Association of America (MCAA) among its membership.

In March 2015, the CISC found that OSHA may have underestimated the cost to implement the new rule. According to the CISC, the new rule will cost the construction industry $4.9 billion per year. OSHA’s initial estimates had the annual costs to implement the new rule at $637 million annually. With the release of the final rule, OSHA now estimates it will cost about $1.03 billion annually.

The final rule is expected to be published in the Federal Register tomorrow. The new rule will go into effect 90 days after being published. Compliance with all provisions of the new rule will begin one year after it goes into effect with the exception of certain requirements for laboratory analysis which will be two years after the rule goes into effect.

3 Responses to “OSHA Issues Controversial Final Rule On Silica Dust Exposure”

  1. Annie March 29, 2016 at 5:25 PM #

    Interesting post, it’s good to see that they are making sure people live longer lives even though it will cost them more. Thanks for sharing.

    • Kendall Jones March 30, 2016 at 7:11 AM #

      Thanks for the comment, Annie. It will be interesting to see if the final rule faces any legal challenges down the road from those opposed to OSHA’s methodology in developing the rule. Not that those organizations or companies are against protecting workers, many feel the new measures aren’t feasible and instead focus on enforcing existing standards.

  2. David Jordan April 4, 2016 at 12:25 PM #

    If the construction industry fights this environmental stanard as they have the other environmental regulations, then I feel your health benefits are too high and your costs to the construction too low.

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