OSHA’s Respirable Crystalline Silica Standard for Construction – What Both Construction and General Industry Employers Need to Know

OSHA’s Respirable Crystalline Silica Standard was created to ensure that every reasonable precaution is taken to protect workers in the general, construction, engineering and maritime industries from the release of silica dust which often results from work activities including but not limited to saw-cutting, jack-hammering, concrete drilling, excavating, and even sweeping.

Respirable Crystalline Silica is a common mineral found in concrete, brick, mortar, sand, and stone. Construction activities such as drilling and cutting create very small particles which become ‘respirable,’ or easily breathed into workers’ lungs, possibly causing a variety of lung diseases, kidney disease, and cancer. OSHA estimates that currently over two million workers are exposed to respirable crystalline silica in their work places.

In general Industry, respirable silica can result from the manufacture of glass, pottery, ceramic, brick, concrete, asphalt roofing, jewelry, artificial stone, dental, porcelain, or structural clay products; use of industrial sand in operations such as foundry work and hydraulic fracturing; and use of sand for abrasive blasting (e.g., maritime operations).

OSHA’s standard (29 CFR 1926.1153) requires employers to take steps to limit employees’ exposure to the permissible exposure limit (PEL), which is 50 micrograms of respirable crystalline silica per cubic meter of air (μg/m3) averaged over an 8-hour day. To do this, required silica exposure control methods include task-specific engineering and work practice control methods: using equipment with integrated water delivery systems, shroud systems, dust collection systems, exhaust ventilation systems, drum enclosure systems, or enclosed cab systems.

If these methods aren’t feasible, employers must determine the amount of silica their workers are exposed to in order to ensure exposure remains under the PEL. Additionally, dust controls and safe work methods must be implemented. Lastly, if the above methods cannot limit exposure, respirators must be provided free of cost.

Employers must provide a written exposure control plan which includes (1) identification of work tasks which involve silica exposure and workers who wear a respirator for 30 or more days per year and thus require medical exams every three years, (2) designation of a competent person to maintain the plan, (3) enforcement of strategies and process to reduce exposure risk, and (4) appropriate training, and (5) record keeping procedures.

For the Construction Industry, compliance of the new standard was required as of September 23, 2017; sampling laboratory evaluation requirements will be enforced as of June 23, 2018.

For General Industry and Maritime, compliance with the standard is required as of June 23, 2018, except that starting June 23, 2020 medical surveillance must be offered to employees who will be exposed at or above the action level for 30 or more days a year (medical surveillance must be offered to employees who will be exposed above the PEL for 30 or more days a year starting on June 23, 2018.) Hydraulic fracturing operations in the oil and gas industry must implement dust controls to limit exposures to the new PEL by June 23, 2021.

Although industry groups complained that the new standards were too strict, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia rejected claims of invalidity and supported OSHA’s rulemaking process. On the contrary, several workers’ unions suggested the standard is not strict enough in regards to medical surveillance and medical removal protections for highly affected workers.

Regardless of the challenges raised by both industry and union groups, employers are required to comply with the standard in an effort to protect their workers from respirable crystalline silica exposure through training, exposure control plans, exposure testing, and record keeping.

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