OSHA Publishes Proposed Rule on Exposure to Crystalline Silica

Image Credit: U.S. Navy

Image Credit: U.S. Navy

The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) published its proposed rule for occupational exposure to respirable crystalline silica in the Federal Register yesterday. The proposed rule includes two standards, one for general industry and maritime and the other specifically for construction. The construction standard would reduce the current permissible exposure limit (PEL) of respirable crystalline silica which was established in 1971 from 250 micrograms per cubic meter averaged over an 8-hour day down to 50 micrograms per cubic meter. OSHA claims the proposed rule would save the lives of 560 construction workers and prevent 1,080 cases of silicosis a year. It’s estimated that approximately 1.85 million construction workers are exposed to respirable crystalline silica at their workplace.

Silica, also known as silicon dioxide, is a chemical compound that occurs in nature as a basic component of sand and quartz. Silica is found in a number of building materials including shingles, asphalt, bricks, drywall, porcelain, stucco, cement and concrete. 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 proposed standard for construction would require air monitoring to measure the amount of silica that workers are exposed to unless it can be proven that they aren’t exposed to an amount at or above the action level of 25 micrograms per cubic meter averaged over an 8-hour day. The standard also lays out engineering and work practice control methods for 13 specific tasks that can be used to avoid having to monitor the air for silica levels. These 13 tasks are using stationary masonry saws, using hand-operated grinders, tuckpointing, using jackhammers and other impact drillers, using rotary hammers or drillers, operating vehicle-mounted drilling rigs for rock, operating vehicle-mounted drilling rigs for concrete, milling, using handheld masonry saws, using portable walk-behind or drivable masonry saws, rock crushing, drywall finishing with silica-containing materials, and using heavy equipment during earthmoving.

Other major provisions require that employers to limit workers’ access to areas where they could be exposed above the PEL, using dust controls to limit exposure and providing respirators when dust controls won’t adequately limit exposures to the PEL. Employers would have to offer medical exams every three years to any worker exposed to levels above the PEL for 30 or more days per year and maintain records on workers; exposure and medical exams. In addition, workers would have to be made aware of the various operations that result in exposure to crystalline silica and trained on methods to limit their exposure.

Shortly after OSHA announced the proposed rule back on August 23rd but before it was published in the Federal Register a group of 11 national construction industry trade organizations announced the formation of the Construction Industry Safety Coalition in order to express concern over the proposed rule. The coalition wants OSHA to develop a technologically feasible and cost-effective rule that could improve safety and health protection measures that would factor in industry-specific tasks that are unique to the construction industry. OSHA claims that the proposed rule would save $2.8 to $4.7 billion a year, putting costs at $637 annually to implement. Independent studies have estimated that the new rule could cost businesses anywhere from $1 to $5.1 billion a year. The coalition is made up of the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), Associated General Contractors (AGC), Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry (AWCI), American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), American Subcontractors Association (ASA), International Council of Employers of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers (ICE), Mason Contractors Association of America (MCAA), Mechanical Contractors Association of America (MCA), National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) and National Roofing Contractors Association (NRCA).

Written comments from the public on the proposed rule must be submitted by December 11, 2013, to be considered. Public hearings on the proposed silica exposure rule are set to begin on March 4, 2014, and those wishing to participate must submit a notice of intention to appear by November 12, 2013. For more information on submitting written comments or participating in the public hearings, visit OSHA’s Crystalline Silica Rulemaking website at https://www.osha.gov/silica/index.html.

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