Last Friday, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) published its final rule for occupational exposure to respirable crystalline silica in the Federal Register. This is the final step in a decades-long process to establish specific standards for occupational exposure to silica dust and reduce permissible exposure limits (PELs) for workers. The final rule created two separate standards, one for general industry and maritime and the other for construction.
What is Silica?
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 products and construction materials including shingles, asphalt, bricks, drywall, tiles, cement and concrete. Respirable crystalline silica dust is created during work operations involving stone, rock, concrete, brick, block, mortar and industrial sand. Current PELs were established back in 1971 for general industry, construction and shipyards. OSHA claims those levels are outdated, inconsistent between industries and do not adequately protect workers from the health hazards of exposure to respirable silica dust.
OSHA estimates that about 2 million construction workers are exposed to silica dust. 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.
A Brief History
Back in 1974, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommended that a standard for occupational exposure to crystalline silica be established with a PEL of 50 μg/m3 for a 10-hour shift. OSHA published an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking later that year seeking public comments and input from stakeholders on whether a new standard was warranted. In 1998, OSHA finally got around to moving occupational exposure to crystalline silica to the pre-rule stage. It wasn’t until September 2013 that a proposed rule was finally published. The agency held numerous stakeholder meeting and had to extend the comment period both before and after the 14-day public hearing. OSHA received over 2,000 comments on the proposed rulemaking.
New Construction Standard
The final rule establishes a new standard for the construction industry and 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.
The construction standard establishes specified exposure control methods for to protect employees when working with materials containing crystalline silica. These engineering and work practice control methods cover 18 specific equipment/tasks commonly found in construction work. OSHA has acknowledged that conducting exposure assessments can be burdensome which is why they are emphasizing the use of the control methods as opposed to the alternative exposure control methods which would require firms to determine if workers will be exposed, or reasonably expected to be exposed, to respirable silica at or above the action level of 25 μg/m3. 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. 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.
A Controversial Rule
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 includes the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) and the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) among its members. CISC membership quickly grew to include 25 organizations.
The CISC argued that the proposed rules were not technologically or economically feasible for companies to abide by and suggested OSHA focus on enforcing compliance with existing exposure limits. By their estimates, OSHA also grossly 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, which was about 10 times higher than OSHA’s estimate.
The final rule goes into effect on June 23, 2016, which is 90 days after being published in the Federal Register. Compliance with all provisions of the new rule will begin one year from the effective date. The only exception is for certain requirements for laboratory analysis which won’t be enforced until two years after the rule goes into effect.
In Other OSHA News
Last week, OSHA also published a final rule to make revisions to their eye and face protection standards. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) standards for construction refer to outdated consensus standards from the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). The new rule also modifies the language in the construction standard for eye and face protection to match up with the general industry standard.