OSHA’s new silica rule seems complex on the surface, but as you start digging into the fine print, you’ll find it’s a well-designed regulation with the intention of making compliance easier for the construction industry.
To understand how manageable complying with the new rule can be, we’re going to break down key points of the silica regulation: what silica is, how to reduce worker exposure, and ultimately, how to comply.
What silica is and the health problems it can cause
Silica is a common mineral that can be either crystalline or non-crystalline. The new standard regulates exposure to crystalline silica, which is found in soil, sand, granite, rock, and building materials like concrete, brick, drywall, and mortar. Given the mineral’s abundance, it should come as no surprise that construction activities regularly disturb silica. Some activities turn the mineral into particles small enough to inhale.
About 676,000 U.S. workplaces are affected by silica dust, exposing 2.3 million workers, including 2 million construction workers. Here are some examples of construction activities that put workers at risk:
- Abrasive blasting
- Jackhammering and impact drilling
- Concrete cutting and grinding
- Underground construction work
- Drywall finishing
- Tuck-pointing and grinding
Airborne silica dust can contribute to serious respiratory issues, including lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), kidney disease, and silicosis.
Silicosis is a disease in which the lungs become scarred, making breathing difficult, and symptoms typically worsen over time. Chronic silicosis is the most common type of the disease in the United States, caused by consistent low-level exposure to silica dust over long periods of time. Each year, about 100 people die from the disease. Much like symptoms of asbestos exposure, warning signs of silicosis can appear years after silica dust exposure.
What’s different about this regulation
Silica regulations have been around for decades, but they’ve had significant shortcomings. First, the regulation was based on what was then cutting-edge technology. Second, silica dust sampling was so unpredictable that enforcement was inconsistent. As a result, compliance was not a significant priority in the construction industry.
The new regulation reduced the PEL to 0.05 mg/m3 (8-hour Time Weighted Average) and also made sampling, and by extension, enforcement, easier. Now, regulators who drive past a construction site and see a cloud of dust can be confident they can collect a viable sample. OSHA’s new silica rule also requires employers to implement engineering controls, housekeeping practices, and an exposure control plan.
Requirements for the new silica rule
Despite more stringent requirements, one of our industrial hygienists said this in a recent interview with Nilfisk: “The rule looks more intimidating for basic construction than it truly is. It’s a well-designed regulation that took into account the reality for contractors and construction companies.”
When it comes to complying with the new silica rule, Table 1 is your best friend. Compliance can be achieved just by meeting the written requirements outlined in the table. When Table 1 is followed correctly, no sampling or data collection is required.
Table 1 covers common silica-generating tasks in the construction industry and details engineering controls and time limits for performing each activity. For example, operations using a tool with functioning dust suppression performed outside for less than four hours per day may not require any respiratory protection.The rule also allows for employee rotation to meet the requirements of Table 1.
In cases where Table 1 requires respiratory protection, you must also institute a respiratory protection program in accordance with 29 CFR 1910.134.
What about tasks not covered in Table 1?
Some uncommon construction tasks aren’t covered in Table 1. To protect workers in such cases, silica dust sampling and exposure assessments are necessary. Employers must then implement engineering controls and provide PPE to keep silica exposure below the legal PEL.
There are two options for assessing exposure:
- Performance option. Employers must determine each employee’s silica dust exposure over the course of eight hours based on “any combination of air monitoring data or objective data sufficient to accurately characterize employee exposures to respirable crystalline silica.”
- Scheduled monitoring option. Employers must sample each employee’s breathing zone air “on each shift, for each job classification, in each work area.” If several employees perform the same job in the same place, a representative sample is acceptable.
- If exposure is below the PEL, the monitoring must be repeated within 6 months.
- If exposure is above the PEL, the monitoring must be repeated within 3 months.
If work processes change or there is a suspected rise in the level of silica dust, exposure must be reassessed.
Exposure Control Plan (ECP)
Written Exposure Control Plans are another requirement of OSHA’s new silica rule. Your exposure control plan needs to:
- Identify all tasks that put workers at risk
- Describe all methods used to protect your employees, including
- engineering controls,
- housekeeping practices, and
- procedures used to restrict access to high-risk work areas.
A competent person (as defined by OSHA) must implement and enforce your ECP. Your appointed employee(s) must make regular inspections of job sites, materials, and equipment.
Work activities like blasting and drywalling aren’t the only things that expose workers to silica; some housekeeping methods disturb silica dust as well. As such, the new rule restricts specific housekeeping practices.
Prohibited housekeeping methods (unless approved methods are not feasible):
- Dry brushing
- Dry sweeping
- Compressed air
Approved housekeeping methods
- Wet methods (i.e., using water to keep the dust down)
- Vacuums that meet strict filter requirements
There are a few more (not quite as involved) requirements to comply with the new silica rule.
- Medical exams. For workers required to wear a respirator for 30 or more days per year, you must offer free medical exams including chest X-rays and lung function tests.
- Employee training. You must educate your employees on work practices that expose them to silica dust, ways to limit exposure, and health risks associated with prolonged exposure.
- Recordkeeping. Each medical exam and silica exposure event must be documented and retained.
Simple recommendation for easy compliance
If we could wrap up a recommendation for compliance in one short sentence, it’d be “Take full advantage of Table 1.” That said, to use Table 1 for compliance, you must complete a thorough review of work practices including:
- Activities performed
- Equipment used
- Number of employees affected
- Average length of activity involvement by employees
Done correctly, a thorough review of work practices will guide you through the rest of the steps of compliance. Here are just some examples of what the results of a review will do for you:
- Produce a comprehensive Silica Exposure Control Plan for the company
- Provide the necessary information for designating a competent person
- Target equipment purchase and implementation in the context of Table 1 compliance
- Establish whether sampling is needed and focus that sampling to minimize cost and effort
- Determine whether a respiratory protection program is necessary
- Allow for exploration of compliance actions that do not require sampling or a respiratory protection program
As you can see, in the vast majority of cases, the new silica rule doesn’t require extensive (or expensive) action to gain compliance.
OSHA’s final silica rule went into effect for the construction industry in September 2017. To read the full rule, click here.
Developing and reviewing your control plan, even with third-party assistance, should be similar or less than the cost of a sampling event.