OSHA’s New Silica Standards

Are You Ready?

As you may know, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently issued two standards—one for general and maritime industries, and the other for construction—to protect workers from exposure to respirable crystalline silica which can cause an incurable, often fatal lung disease.

On September 23, 2017, OSHA began enforcing their silica standard for the construction industry. And the deadline—June 23, 2018—for the maritime and general industries is not far behind. The enforcement of these standards is as stringent as the requirements themselves with steep fines and a recently released memorandum that outlines—in no uncertain terms—OSHA’s impending inspection procedures. OSHA is ready.

And despite several industry groups, including the US Chamber of Commerce, who aggressively challenged the new standard, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit recently upheld it, rejecting all of industry’s challenges.

So there’s no recourse and OSHA is ready. The question is, “Are you?”

And other questions naturally stem from there. Have you reviewed the requirements? Do you know what applies? What doesn’t? Are you familiar with the table (Table 1: “Specified Exposure Control Methods When Working with Materials Containing Crystalline Silica”)? Do you have the necessary engineering controls, work practices, and respiratory protection needed for each of your tasks? Do you know what to do if your tasks or equipment don’t fit any of the descriptions in the table? Do you know how to effectively assess and limit employee exposure? What if you had conducted prior air monitoring under the former permissible exposure limit (PEL) for silica, do you know whether that prior testing is still valid? Are your employees fully trained in prevention, protection, and risk? Do you understand when medical surveillance must occur and how to document it appropriately? Do you know when you should use the performance option or the scheduled monitoring option when it comes to monitoring?

Or on the flip side, maybe you’re already compliant. You may have your act together, but do you know if your subcontractors do? Or more importantly, can you provide their written exposure control plan if an OSHA investigator arrives on site? Are your subcontractors ready?

The PEL for silica is 5x more stringent than the prior OSHA standard. The new PEL is 50 µg/m3 over an eight-hour period, with an action level of 25 µg/m3. That’s the amount of micrograms per cubic meter.  Breaking it down in layperson’s terms, that means if you were to cut one standard patio paver using a table saw and breathed in 100% of that cloud of dust in that task alone, you’d breathe in 29 years’ worth of silica, per the new standard.[i] To break it down further, you face a significant risk of lung cancer with exposure to as little as 0.2 µg/m3 over several years or with greater exposure over a shorter period of time. The good news, fortunately, is that those risks are avoidable.

The new silica standards—for the construction, general, and maritime industries—are designed to prevent the deaths of more than 600 workers annually. In that way their objectives are similar, and so are the requirements, with a few key differences. The construction industry must follow Table 1 which identifies 18 common tasks that generate high silica exposure levels while specifying the engineering controls, work practices, and respiratory protection necessary to safeguard your employees. These include wetting down operations, using local exhaust ventilation, process isolation approaches, flow rate procedures, among others. If you fully and properly implement those, you won’t need to measure exposure levels for those tasks. Maritime/general industry employers whose workers are using the same types of equipment and tasks may also use Table 1 exposure control methods vs. exposure monitoring. But, as we referenced earlier, knowing when and how to do either of these countermeasures is the tricky part.

Regardless of your industry, however, you must have a written exposure plan that details all the tasks in your workplace that involve silica exposure as well as the engineering controls, work practices, and respiratory protection and the housekeeping practices you use to limit that exposure. You must also provide detailed silica labeling and safety data sheets as part of a robust hazard communications program, offer medical exams, and keep comprehensive records of worker exposure and medical exams. In addition, training is essential. You must train your workers on any operations that result in exposure as well as how to limit it and you must train all of your employees on hazard communications and risks.

Within the construction industry, you will also need to designate a competent person who is capable of identifying both existing and foreseeable silica workplace hazards. He or she must implement your exposure control plan and must be authorized to take prompt action to eliminate or minimize any exposures. Beyond identifying who will fill that crucial role, you must comprehensively train him or her regarding the written exposure control plan and any ongoing modifications to your hazard communication program and silica labeling. OSHA left it up to each employer to develop their own training systems for their competent person—and with so much at stake (should we highlight the adjective foreseeable?), it’s in your best interest to go well beyond the minimum training to reduce further liabilities.

In short, there’s a lot to take in: a looming deadline, significant risk, potential fines and litigation, and clearly what’s paramount—planning to continuously ensure the health and safety of your workers.

Breathe easy. We can help.

Partner with an environmental expert in industrial hygiene and tackle the silica standard with maximum efficiency and minimal disruption to your daily operations.

Our turnkey silica response solution includes:

  • Exposure Monitoring and Assessments
  • Written Exposure Control Plans
  • Worker Training
  • Recordkeeping and Data Management

[i] https://iqpowertools.com/how-much-silica-dust-is-too-much/

Apex Associated Press (Apex AP) represents contributions from various authors within the Apex professional community.

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