OSHA Targeting Stone Worker Silica Exposure
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has launched a new initiative to protect workers from silica exposure in the stone fabrication and installation industry. The Respirable Crystalline Silica Focused Inspection Initiative will focus on enforcement and providing compliance assistance.
Additionally, the initiative is anticipated to supplement the current National Emphasis Program for Respirable Crystalline Silica.
“Many workers in the engineering stone industry are experiencing illnesses so severe that they're unable to breathe—much less work a full shift—because of their exposure to silica dust,” explained Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health Doug Parker.
“Among them is a 27-year-old worker in California who went to an emergency room with shortness of breath in 2022 and whose lung biopsy later revealed he had silicosis. Since then, he has been on an oxygen tank and unable to support his wife and three young children financially.”
OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health identify silica dust exposure as a health hazard for workers involved in manufacturing, finishing and installing natural and manufactured stone, which includes the man-made, engineered artificial or cultured types.
When inhaled, very small crystalline silica particles expose workers to the risk of silicosis or other dangerous diseases.
According to OSHA’s release, a July 2023 study released by the American Medical Association highlighted dangers for workers, citing 52 male patients diagnosed with silicosis caused by occupational exposure to respirable silica dust from engineered stone. Of these patients, 20 suffered progressive massive fibrosis, 11 needed lung transplants and 10 died due to their exposures.
The latest initiative will prioritize enforcement efforts on industry employers to make sure they're following required safety standards and providing workers with the protections required to keep them healthy. It also establishes procedures for federal OSHA inspections to identify and ensure prompt abatement of hazards in covered industries where workers face exposure to high levels of silica dust.
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:
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 2019, 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 2020, 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:
Then, in April 2020, OSHA extended its National Emphasis 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.