Achieving Compliance with New Silica Regulations

Achieving Compliance with New Silica Regulations

OSHA’s new respirable crystalline silica rule became effective in June 2016 and enforceable in the construction industry on September 23, 2017. While enforcement for general industry won’t begin until June of 2018, affected parties should be prepared for how this new regulation will affect their operations and take the necessary steps to ensure compliance.

Reducing the Hazards of Silica Exposure

Crystalline silica is a common, naturally occurring mineral that’s found in several building products including concrete and brick. Consequently, activities like sand blasting, cutting concrete or bricks, crushing stone, and jackhammering (among others) generate crystalline silica dust. Inhaling this dust over time can have serious health effects, including a lung disease called silicosis that involves scarring of the lungs, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer, and kidney disease. OSHA’s previous permissible exposure limit (PEL) for respirable crystalline silica was established using a formula, rather than a fixed value, that calculates the PEL based on the silica percentage found in an air monitoring sample. The new PEL is 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air (µg/m3) with an action level of 25 µg/m3.

OSHA estimates that more than 840,000 workers in the construction industry and over 100,000 workers in general industry and maritime workplaces are exposed to respirable crystalline silica at levels that exceed the new PEL. OSHA issued two separate standards: one for general industry and maritime, and another for the construction industry, designed to provide solutions that are customized to specific workplace conditions and exposure scenarios. A summary of the OSHA respirable crystalline silica standard for construction can be found here and for general industry here

Conducting exposure assessments

OSHA’s construction standard for respirable crystalline silica provides engineering and work practice controls that must be implemented for specific construction-related tasks (see 29 C.F.R. 1926.1153 Table 1). General industry has the option to comply with these controls for the specific work tasks listed in Table 1 or to implement alternative exposure control methods dependent on the level of exposure employees will be subject to at work. As with many complex regulations, the rule provides a number of if, then scenarios that must be considered. For example, if full and proper compliance with the controls listed in Table 1 is possible, then no personal exposure assessment is necessary, otherwise one will need to be conducted. If existing objective industrial hygiene data exist indicating personal exposures to respirable crystalline silica are below the action level and conditions haven’t changed since the assessment, then monitoring may be discontinued. If not, personal exposure monitoring will need to be performed in accordance with the standard. 

These assessments must take into account an employee’s potential exposure for each job task that would put him/her in contact with respirable crystalline silica. No additional monitoring is required if an initial assessment indicates the exposure is below the action level. However, an assessment would need to be repeated every sixth months if personal exposures are above the action level but below the PEL, and repeated every three months if exposures are above the PEL. Further exposure assessments are necessary if an employer implements controls to reduce employees’ exposure, or if there are changes in work conditions that may increase exposures to respirable crystalline silica.

Both respirable crystalline silica standards include requirements for medical surveillance, employee training, and the development of a written exposure control plan. Between maintaining an awareness of the activities that could put your employees at risk, assessing the safety conditions at your workplace, and ensuring compliance with the necessary control measures, your responsibilities under the new standard have likely increased. Our Certified Industrial Hygienists (CIHs) and health and safety experts are available to help you navigate the applicability of the standards and develop a compliance strategy tailored to your operations. For help addressing your particular needs, please call our health and safety compliance leader Ray Cowan, CIH.

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National Practice Leader
Environmental Compliance

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