OSHA OKs Long-Delayed Silica Dust Rule

FRIDAY, MARCH 25, 2016

The much-anticipated final rule intended to better protect workers from respirable silica dust exposure has finally been issued by the U.S. Department of Labor.

The new regulation requires employers to cut worker exposures in half in general industry and by five times in the construction field, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced in its statement Thursday (March 24).

"More than 80 years ago, Labor Secretary Frances Perkins identified silica dust as a deadly hazard and called on employers to fully protect workers," said U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez.

"This rule will save lives,” he added. “It will enable workers to earn a living without sacrificing their health.”

Increased Protection for Workers

The new rule, “Occupational Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica,” amends silica exposure regulations for the first time since 1971. It represents the fruition of decades of research and a lengthy stakeholder engagement process—including the consideration of thousands of public comments, Perez noted.

In terms of permissible exposure limits, the updated rule reduces the permissible exposure limit for crystalline silica to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over an eight-hour shift.

"Limiting exposure to silica dust is essential,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels.

“Every year, many exposed workers not only lose their ability to work, but also to breathe,” he added. “Today, we are taking action to bring worker protections into the 21st century in ways that are feasible and economical for employers to implement."

The final rule also includes key provisions that require employers to:

  • Use engineering controls (such as water or ventilation) and work practices to limit worker exposure;
  • Provide respiratory protection when controls are not able to limit exposures to the permissible level;
  • Limit access to high-exposure areas;
  • Train workers; and
  • Provide medical exams to highly exposed workers.

Additionally, the rule provides greater certainty and ease of compliance to construction employers—including many small employers—through a table of specified controls they can follow to be in compliance without having to monitor exposures.

Coming into Compliance

The final rule is written as two standards, one for construction and one for general industry and maritime.

Both standards take effect on June 23, after which industries have one to five years to comply with most requirements.

By staggering compliance dates, OSHA intends to allow employers sufficient time to meet the new requirements.

Employers covered by the construction standard have until June 23, 2017, to comply with most requirements, while employers covered by the general industry and maritime standard have until June 23, 2018.

Additional time is provided for all general industry employers to offer medical exams to employees exposed between the PEL and 50 micrograms per cubic meter and the action level of 25 micrograms per cubic meter. The compliance dates also allow time for hydraulic fracturing employers to install dust controls to meet the new exposure limit.

Industry Exposures and Impact

Silica is one of Earth's most common minerals, found in stone, rock, brick, mortar and block. Exposure to airborne silica dust occurs in operations involving cutting, sawing, drilling and crushing of concrete, brick, block and other stone products and in operations using sand products, such as in glass manufacturing, foundries and abrasive blasting.

Studies indicate that breathing in silica dust can lead to the debilitating and potentially fatal pulmonary disease silicosis—an incurable and progressive disease—as well as lung cancer.

According to OSHA, about 2.3 million men and women are exposed to respirable crystalline silica in their workplaces, including two million construction workers who drill and cut silica-containing materials such as concrete and stone. An additional 300,000 workers in operations such as brick manufacturing, foundries and hydraulic fracturing also face exposure.

OSHA estimates that when the final rule becomes fully effective, it will save more than 600 lives annually and prevent more than 900 new cases of silicosis each year. The agency also estimates the final rule will provide net benefits of about $7.7 billion per year.

Cheers and Jeers

Those in support of the revised rule voiced their relief in industry events after the ruling was announced.

“Today, millions of workers can breathe easier. This victory will help stop preventable illnesses and deaths. Preventable: that is the key word,” AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Liz Shuler said during an event at the International Masonry Institute in Bowie, MD, EHS Today reported.

workers exposed to respirable silica
OSHA Directorate of Standards and Guidance

Exposure to airborne silica dust occurs in operations involving cutting, sawing, drilling and crushing of concrete, brick, block and other stone products and in operations using sand products, such as in glass manufacturing, foundries and abrasive blasting.

"We've known for decades that silica dust is deadly,” National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) Acting Executive Director Jessica Martinez said to OHS Online.

“With new common-sense rules in place to limit exposure, we can save lives and reduce suffering from silicosis, cancer and other life-threatening diseases."

However, not everyone supports the revisions.

As reported earlier, after OSHA published its “Proposed Rule on Occupational Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica” in September 2013, coatings and construction employers stepped forward to issue objections and urge the agency to withdraw the proposed rule, claiming that the proposal contained errors and inaccuracies and that the program would cost more than OSHA had calculated.

In a statement released via email March 24, the Construction Industry Safety Coalition (CISC) expressed its concerns with the final rule, indicating that an initial rule shows that it still contains provisions that the group had previously identified and shared with the agency.

“At first glance, we have observed that a number of provisions that concerned us in the proposed rule have been left in the final rule,” said Jeff Buczkiewicz, president of the Mason Contractors Association of America. “This makes us continue to question the final rule’s technological and economic feasibility for the construction industry.”

“Instead of crafting a new standard that the construction industry can comply with, administration officials have instead opted to set a new standard that is well beyond the capabilities of current air filtration and dust removal technologies,” said Stephen E. Sandherr, the CEO of the Associated General Contractors of America.

Ed Brady, chairman of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), echoed these thoughts saying, “NAHB has long advocated the importance of the rule being both technologically and economically feasible. While we’re still reviewing the final rule, we’re concerned that it may not adequately address these issues and take into consideration real-world application.”

According to the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), the silica rule “drastically underestimates the exorbitant costs that will be inflicted on manufacturers," The Hill said.

“As a result, small and medium-sized manufacturers could be forced to close their doors,” NAM President Jay Timmons said in a statement.

The National Federation of Independent Business has estimated compliance will cost industry $7.2 billion a year to comply, which could lead to 27,000 job cuts over the next decade, the political website noted.

Still, labor groups have been pushing for improved protections against silica since the 1970s, when it was determined the Labor Department’s first established silica protections did not go far enough to protect workers.

"They were out of date the moment they went into effect,” Perez admitted.


Tagged categories: Blasting; Department of Labor; Health & Safety; Health and safety; North America; OSHA; Personal protective equipment; Regulations; Silica

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