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What You Need to Know About OSHA’s New Silica Exposure Control Rule

Posted: August 30, 2016 Tags:

What You Need to Know About OSHA’s New Silica Exposure Control Rule

By: Jorge Torres, CSP, CHST 
The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has recently published the new Silica Final Rule which is now slated to take full effect in September of 2017, not in June as previously stated. The rule will affect all construction employers with scopes of work that create an exposure to silica containing dust. Although some scopes of work such as concrete and masonry work seem fairly obvious, others are not. For instance, employees engaged in housekeeping activities that include the sweeping and/or collecting of silica containing dust; interior work contractors installing cementitious products such as cement board or those working on stone such as granite or quartz. The important thing to remember is that the rule is not scope specific but exposure level specific.Current exposure levels require worker protection from exposure at or above 100 micrograms of silica per cubic meter (µ/m3) of air. This is a minute amount of dust which is barely visible to the naked eye. The proposed rule lowers this exposure level to 50 µ/m3 and establishes an actionable level of 25 µ/m3. What this means is that an employer must take action to address exposure once the concentration level reaches 25 µ/m3. There are several methods to achieve protection including engineering, administrative and the use of personal protective equipment. Although engineering controls are emphasized, OSHA does not mandate one method over the other; rather they establish a performance based measurement to determine compliance. In simple terms, a worker exposure to silica means that whatever methods the employer established were ineffective, therefore the employer is considered out of compliance and may be held accountable under the regulations.

Industry Pushback

Since the announcement, leading organizations within the masonry, concrete and other industries involved in the production, installation and use of silica containing products have voiced severe opposition to the rule. There are several reasons for the opposition including the feasibility of implementing the required engineering controls, the costs associated with these controls, the required medical testing and screening and the impact the new regulations will have on small businesses.

The new rule places an emphasis on the use of engineering controls when addressing silica exposure issues. Engineering controls refers to methods which permanently address and eliminate a hazard. As it relates to silica exposure, the two preferred engineering controls are the use of wet method for cutting, grinding or polishing silica containing materials or the use of vacuum systems. Both of these methods remove the exposure and eliminate the need for personal protective equipment. Unfortunately, there are costs associated with implementing these controls in a construction setting. Even higher costs are tied to the use of respiratory protection including medical testing, respirator selection and purchase, training, etc. It is these costs that the industry refers to. Another valid concern is the fact that OSHA has not been very proficient in enforcing the previous requirements and the industry in general questions whether the agency will fall back into the same pattern of non-enforcement after employers have invested in meeting the new requirements.

What You Should Do

Although the industry pushback is strong, no legal actions have been filed at the time of this writing; however, it is still possible for court challenges to occur. Until then, employers affected by the rule should begin evaluating their scopes of work in preparation for full implementation slated for June 23, 2017. Some of the initial actions include developing a Silica Control Plan that identifies specific activities that create an exposure, what the exposure levels are and what control methods are available. The program must include details on PPE selection, medical testing and employee training.

For more information or to have your current program assessed, contact CORE Safety Group.

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