On October 23, OSHA started enforcing new rules for protecting construction workers from exposure to silica. And it’s not hard to understand why: silica can damage the lungs and cause several diseases that have no cure.
What do business owners and construction workers need to know about this mineral and OSHA’s new rules?
What is Silica?
Silica is a mineral found in the earth’s crust. It’s present in materials like sand, stone, concrete, and mortar.
OSHA’s rules focus on respirable crystalline silica – very small particles 100 times smaller than ordinary sand.
Job site activity creates breathable silica when workers saw, cut, grind, drill, and crush stone, rock, concrete, brick, block, and mortar.
It’s not hard to see why OSHA is so concerned with the safety of construction workers who are exposed to this material. And not just construction workers, either. About 2.3 million people in the United States are exposed to this material at work.
OSHA created separate rules for other types of businesses (general industry/maritime). But enforcement in these industries won’t start until June 23, 2018.
Any worker who inhales these particles is at an increased risk of developing several diseases. One is silicosis. In severe cases the disease is disabling, or even fatal. It’s caused by silica dust entering the lungs. Here it causes scar tissue to form, which makes it difficult for the lungs to take in oxygen. The disease has no cure.
Other diseases caused by silica exposure are lung cancer, kidney disease, and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).
Silica Rule History
OSHA expressed concerns about silica in past decades – the administration first issued rules about exposure to the mineral in 1971. And the Department of Labor began studying silica dust and its relationship to worker deaths in the 1930s.
So what changes did OSHA make in 2017?
The biggest change is new limits on silica exposure during an eight-hour shift. Before 2017, rules allowed an exposure level of 250 micrograms of silica per cubic meter of air. The new standard lowered the exposure amount to only 50 micrograms.
But some industry groups have opposed the new rules.
On April 4, 2016, eight construction industry organizations filed a legal challenge to OSHA’s new silica rules with the U.S. Court of Appeals. Their main objection to the new rule? That it’s unfeasible. The groups argued that the silica exposure limit is nearly impossible to implement, and also based on flawed evidence. They also argued that implementation of the rules would put too big of a financial burden on contractors.
How to Protect Workers
But despite the objections of construction industry groups, OSHA’s new silica exposure rules prevailed.
In addition to the new limit of only 50 micrograms of exposure, OSHA put other standards in place as part of the 2017 rule. The administration now requires contractors to:
1) Develop a written silica exposure control plan.
2) Designate someone to implement the plan.
3) Adjust housekeeping practices to maximize control of silica dust.
4) Provide medical exams every three years to employees who are exposed to silica to the point of having to wear a respirator for 30 days or more each year. The exams must include lung-function tests and chest X-rays.
5) Train workers on how to limit exposure to silica.
6) Keep records of workers’ silica exposure and related medical treatment.
Safety professionals who need more information on complying with the new rules can get information from OSHA here.
Both employers and workers can also get information from their regional OSHA office. To find it, you can go to the OSHA Offices by State webpage, or call 1-800-321-OSHA (6742).
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