OSHA Issues Final Rule to Protect Workers From Respirable Crystalline Silica

Date First Published on SafetySmart Compliance: June 23rd, 2016
Topics: Airborne Contaminants |

OSHA recently issued a final rule to protect workers from the health hazards associated with respirable crystalline silica, including lung cancer, silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and kidney disease.

The new rule is comprised of two standards, one each for construction and general industry.

OSHA says about 2.3 million workers are currently exposed to respirable crystalline silica in their workplaces, including two million construction workers who drill, cut, crush or grind silica-containing minerals such as concrete and stone, along with 300,000 workers in general industry operations such as brick manufacturing, foundries and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) operations.

An estimated 600 lives will be saved and more than 900 new cases of silicosis will be prevented throughout the US every year with the new rule, according to OSHA.

Key provisions of the new rule are as follows:

  • The permissible exposure limit (PEL) for respirable crystalline silica will be reduced to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over an eight-hour shift. That’s about a 50 percent reduction for the previous PEL for general industry and about 20 percent of the previous PEL for construction and shipyards.
  • Employers will be required to use engineering controls, such as water or ventilation, to limit worker exposures. They will also need to provide respirators to workers when engineering controls cannot adequately limit exposure to respirable crystalline silica.
  • Worker access to high-exposure areas will need to be limited, and employers will be required to develop a written exposure control plan; offer medical examinations to highly exposed workers; and train workers on silica risks and how to limit exposures.
  • Some flexibility will be provided to help employers, especially small businesses, protect workers against silica exposure.

Both standards contained in the final rule take effect June 23, 2016, after which time industries will have one to five years to comply with most requirements. The compliance deadline for construction is June 23, 2017, while for general industry and maritime operations it is June 23, 2018.

The compliance deadline for hydraulic fracking is June 23, 2018 for all provisions except engineering controls, for which a June 23, 2021 compliance deadline has been set.

The US Department of Labor first highlighted the hazards of respirable crystalline silica back in the 1930s, following a wave of worker deaths. The department set standards to limit worker exposure in 1971, when OSHA was created. Those standards are long outdated and do not protect workers against silica-related diseases, says OSHA.

Furthermore, workers in new industries such as stone or artificial stone countertop fabrication, along with hydraulic fracking, are also at risk for exposure.

While the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists recommends an even lower exposure limit of 25 micrograms per cubic meter of air average over an eight-hour period, OSHA says a 50 microgram limit is the lowest level that can be reasonably achieved through the use of engineering controls and work practices in most affected operations.

Related content:

Use this model crystalline silica exposure control plan to help keep your workers safe.

This article covers potential respirable crystalline silica exposure hazards associated with hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

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This article details a hazard alert issued by OSHA for people who make, finish or install natural or manufactured countertops.