What OSHA's Silica Dust Rule Means for Construction

by Melanie Baravik
October 19, 2017

OSHA’s new silica dust exposure standard for the construction industry went into effect on September 23, 2017. Luckily for business owners, OSHA is observing a 30-day leniency period in issuing violations, instead providing compliance assistance to companies making an effort to comply. The new standard takes full effect and will be fully enforced by OSHA beginning on October 23, 2017.

What is the new silica dust rule?

Respirable silica dust is produced on the jobsite when material containing silica is cut, chopped, grinded or crushed. Many construction materials contain silica: concrete, stone, tile, drywall, mortar and grout, among others. Breathing in silica dust—as construction workers often do—is dangerous, especially in large amounts and over long periods of time.

OSHA has lowered the amount of silica dust that workers can be exposed to during an eight-hour shift, called the Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL). The previous PEL was based on research that is now more than 40 years old, and OSHA wants to bring current standards up to speed with more recent research. That research, according to OSHA, shows that the previously allowed exposure levels can cause illnesses like lung cancer and kidney disease.

PEL prior to the new rule was 100 µg/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter of air), and is now 50 µg/m3  averaged over an eight-hour day for the construction industry. Another provision of the rule requires the amount of silica in the air to be tested if it might exceed an action level of 25 µg/m3 averaged over an eight-hour day.

Reducing the PEL is not the rule’s only measure against silica dust exposure; construction employers are required to take more steps to limit inhalation:

• Create and implement a written exposure control plan detailing how employee silica dust exposure will be curbed.
Designate a competent person to put the plan into action.
Restrict housekeeping practices that expose employees to silica dust, using alternatives wherever possible.
Offer medical exams that include chest X-rays and lung function tests to employees whose silica dust exposure mandates that they wear a respirator more than 30 days per year.
Train employees on how to limit exposure.
Keep records of employees’ exposure and medical exams.

The new silica dust rule is not limited to construction; maritime and general industry standards were also established, with an effective date of June 23, 2018 for most industries.

Why was the new standard introduced?

The silica dust exposure standard was mandated in an effort to cut down on illnesses contracted as a result of inhalation, including silicosis, an incurable lung disease. Silicosis can lead to the development of diseases like lung cancer, bronchitis, COPD and scleroderma.

With over 2 million construction workers exposed to silica on the job—about 840,000 of whom are exposed to levels higher than the new PEL—OSHA estimates that their efforts will prevent more than 600 deaths and 900 cases of silicosis every year.

How can construction business owners comply with the rule?

During the 30-day leniency period before full effectiveness, employers must be attempting to comply with the rule in order to avoid being issued a violation. Table 1, a figure within the law, lays out ways for employers to protect against silica dust inhalation for different pieces of equipment. For example, using a water delivery system can cut down on dust produced by handheld saws. OSHA also mandates that employees using handheld saws for more than four hours per shift (indoors or out) must wear respiratory protection with a minimum assigned protection factor (APF) of 10. Following Table 1’s guidelines during the leniency period shows OSHA that your business is making an effort to comply; after that, it’s the law to implement Table 1’s control methods.

Any business owner concerned about their ability to comply before the October 23 deadline should contact OSHA to discuss the best course of action. Small business owners should take advantage of OSHA’s Small Entity Compliance Guide. More questions? See OSHA’s silica dust rule FAQs.

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