OSHA Extends Silica Exposure Program


According to a news release issued by the United Sates Department of Labor, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has extended its National Emphasis Program (NEP) on Respirable Crystalline Silica to West Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia.

The announcement was made on March 18 and involves an initiative to increase the focus of agency inspections in each state’s maritime, construction, and general industries on identifying, reducing, or eliminating worker exposures to respirable crystalline silica.

Crystalline Silica Rule History

For the first time since 1971, OSHA amended silica exposure regulations in a new proposed silica rule, in March 2016. The rule came in the form of two standards—one for construction, and one for general industry and maritime. The construction standard took effect in October 2017, with a 30-day grace period for enforcement, and the maritime standard took effect June 2018.

The new rule reduced the permissible exposure limit for crystalline silica to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over an eight-hour shift. That’s half of the old PEL of 100 micrograms per cubic meter. The rule also establishes an action level of 25 micrograms per cubic meter.

Mandatory provisions for employers also included:

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

In October 2017, the 30-day enforcement grace period for the new standard ended and a memorandum released by Deputy Assistant Secretary Thomas Galassi outlined interim enforcement guidelines that had taken effect.

By May 2018—six months into its enforcement of its new silica rule—OSHA cited more than 100 companies, most commonly for employers’ failure to measure silica levels at all.

Other citations included variations of employers incorrectly following Table 1 procedures. (Table 1 refers to the “Specified Exposure Control Methods When Working With Materials Containing Silica” chart, which was released with the guidelines for the new rule.)

The Table 1 guide, as well as the 101-page booklet that is intended to help contractors follow the new rule, is a point of contention as many organizations and companies maintain that the guides are unclear. (The National Association of Home Builders in Washington has submitted formal compliance questions.)

However, in August 2019, OSHA again requested industry feedback on its respirable crystalline silica standard as it applies to construction.

During the comment period, OSHA specifically sought feedback on “the effectiveness of engineering and work practice control methods not currently included for the tasks and equipment,” which are included in Table 1 of the standard, according to OSHA.

OSHA also requested information on other construction tasks, including equipment, that generate silica, which may be added to Table 1. Information about relevant engineering and work practice control methods would also be included.

Table 1 of the silica standard for construction pertains to appropriate control measures for pieces of equipment connected to silica exposure. Equipment currently covered under this table includes: stationary masonry saws, handheld power saws, walk-behind saws and drivable saws, among others.

Additionally, OSHA was also seeking to revise paragraph (a)(3) of the Respirable Crystalline Silica Standard for General Industry, a move that would broaden the compliance opportunities for the general industry and maritime employers, using the silica standard as an alternative for the general industry standard. Commentary on that was accepted until Nov. 13.

In December, OSHA released its long-term regulatory agenda, highlighting that this upcoming June, the Administration would its proposed rule on Occupational Exposure to Crystalline Silica after reviewing the comments received in the fall.

By February, OSHA announced a revision to the National Emphasis Program to identify and reduce or eliminate worker exposures to respirable crystalline silica in general industry, maritime and construction. According to the Administration, the NEP targets industries expected to have the highest numbers of workers exposed to silica and focuses on enforcement in of the new silica standards.

In order to pass the new NEP, the following changes were made:

  • Revised application to the lower permissible exposure limit for respirable crystalline silica to 50 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3) as an eight-hour time-weighted average in general industry, maritime and construction;
  • Updated list of target industries, as listed in the appendix of the NEP; from this list, area offices will develop randomized establishment lists of employers in their local jurisdictions for targeted inspections;
  • Compliance safety and health officers will refer to current enforcement guidance for RCS inspection procedures;
  • All OSHA regional and area offices must comply with this NEP, but they are not required to develop and implement corresponding regional or local emphasis programs; and
  • State plans must participate because of the nationwide exposures to silica.

Following the announcement, OSHA held a 90-day compliance period where stakeholders could receive assistance prior to program inspections.

What’s Happening Now

In an effort to identify, reduce or eliminate worker exposures to respirable crystalline silica, OSHA has announced an expansion on its NEP program.

Specifically, the NEP on respirable crystalline silica will look at industries in West Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia suspected of having an excess of workers exposed to silica. Additionally, the NEP will also focus on enforcement of two new silica standards, one for the general and maritime industries, and one for the construction industry.

According to the Administration, it is believed that new silica standards for the maritime, construction and general industries could impact approximately 5,354 workers in Delaware, 1,675 District of Columbia workers, 61,899 workers in Pennsylvania, and 5,684 West Virginia workers.

“The goal of this NEP is to reduce or eliminate worker exposure to dangerous silica particles, and prevent the risk of workers developing serious silica-related diseases,” said OSHA Philadelphia Regional Administrator Michael Rivera.

“Respirable crystalline silica consists of small silica particles that are generated by cutting, sawing, grinding, drilling and crushing materials such as stone, rock, concrete, brick, block and mortar. Inhaling the dust created during these operations can cause silicosis, an incurable lung disease, lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.”

OSHA is conducting compliance assistance until May 3, after which inspections under the NEP will begin.


Tagged categories: Certifications and standards; Department of Labor; Government; Health & Safety; Health and safety; NA; North America; OSHA; OSHA; Project Management; Regulations; Silica; Silica rule

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