In 1971 Disney World opened and the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18. Also in 1971, the U.S. Department of Labor set standards to limit worker exposure to silica and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was established.
Silica standards are over 45 years old and, consequently, outdated. As such, they do not adequately protect workers from silica-related diseases. Exposure to silica has long been typical of construction trades such as masonry, concrete and demolition. Some of the operations that exposed workers to silica include, but are not limited to drilling, cutting, crushing or grinding of silica-containing materials such as concrete and stone. Workers are also being exposed to silica in newer trades such as stone or artificial stone countertop fabrication and hydraulic fracturing. These practices were nearly unknown in 1971.
New OSHA Silica Rule
Why is minimizing this risk important? Silica exposure can cause silicosis, a respiratory ailment, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and kidney disease. With over 45 years of being virtually untouched, it was time for OSHA to update the silica standards. On March 24, 2016, the administration announced a final rule protecting workers from exposure to respirable crystalline silica. According to OSHA, this rule will help save more than 600 lives and prevent more than 900 new cases of silicosis each year.
The rule took effect on June 23, 2016, after which construction and other industries have one to five years for compliance to start. Compliance with the new respirable crystalline silica rule (29 CFDR 1926.1153) will start September 23, 2017, for the construction industry. After receiving feedback from industry groups including Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), OSHA recently extended the original June 23 deadline for contractors by three months, which also allows time for OSHA to develop guidance materials and training for compliance officers.
Prior to this new standard, OSHA’s permissible exposure limit (PEL) for respirable crystalline silica for construction activity was 250 µg/m3 (250 micrograms per cubic meter of air) with a general industry PEL of 100. The new limit is a PEL of 50 µg/m3 with an action level of 25 µg/m3 for an eight-hour average exposure. This is the sum of all types of crystalline silica present in the work atmosphere collected in the air sample. This new standard provides a consistent PEL.
A broad coalition of construction associations, including ABC, has filed a petition for review of the standard in a federal appeals court. Many other industry groups are seeking to overturn the new standard as well, presenting substantial evidence that the new PEL is both technologically and economically infeasible.
Complying with the new standard consists of two options:
- Option 1 – Develop a dust control method with one’s own measures. Institute control measures and measure them. This involves placing monitors on the employees and taking the samples to be tested. If the samples are under the action level of 25 µg/m3, all is good. If not, other measures must be implemented. In essence, start all over and find better measures until the PEL is under the action level.
- Option 2 – Simply follow Table 1 found in the standard 29 CFR 1926.1153(c)(1).
Table 1 on OSHA’s silica webpage shows dust control methods for many common construction operations. The table contains three main headings which are: Equipment/Task, Engineering and Work Practice Control Methods and Assigned Protection Factor (APF). The APF is the level of protection that a respirator or class of respirators is expected to provide a user. Employers who follow Table 1 are not subject to the PEL.
For the Engineering and Work Practice Control Methods, integrated water delivery systems and dust collectors are the two main control dynamics. Water delivery systems wet the point of operation and dust collection systems vacuum the dusts into a container from the point of operation. The filters must be kept clean for adequate control.
Companies that have used their own sophisticated monitor methods (or Table 1 on a pilot basis) have found that due to filter cleaning requirements there have been greater efficiencies and less topping for maintenance with the self-cleaning systems. For complying with the new standard, a construction company has to determine whether the self-developed measures or following Table 1 is more practical for its operations.