The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced a final rule to improve protections for workers exposed to respirable silica dust March 24, 2016. The rule is designed to curb lung cancer, silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and kidney disease in America’s workers by limiting their exposure to respirable crystalline silica, OSHA says.
“More than 80 years ago, Labor Secretary Frances Perkins identified silica dust as a deadly hazard and called on employers to fully protect workers,” says U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez. “This rule will save lives. It will enable workers to earn a living without sacrificing their health. It builds upon decades of research and a lengthy stakeholder engagement process—including the consideration of thousands of public comments—to finally give workers the kind of protection they deserve and that Frances Perkins had hoped for them.”
OSHA estimates that when the final rule on Occupational Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica becomes fully effective, it will save more than 600 lives annually and prevent more than 900 new cases of silicosis—an incurable and progressive disease—each year. The agency also estimates the final rule will provide net benefits of about $7.7 billion per year.
“The previous exposure limits were outdated and did not adequately protect workers,” says Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels. “Limiting exposure to silica dust is essential. Every year, many exposed workers not only lose their ability to work, but also to breathe. Today, we are taking action to bring worker protections into the 21st century in ways that are feasible and economical for employers to implement.”
About 2.3 million men and women face exposure to respirable crystalline silica in their workplaces, including 2 million construction workers who drill and cut silica-containing materials such as concrete and stone, and 300,000 workers in operations such as brick manufacturing, foundries and hydraulic fracturing. Most employers can limit harmful dust exposure by using equipment that is widely available, generally using water to keep dust from getting into the air or a ventilation system to capture dust where it is created.
The final rule will:
- reduce the permissible exposure limit for crystalline silica to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over an eight-hour shift;
- require employers to use engineering controls (such as water or ventilation) and work practices to limit worker exposure, provide respiratory protection when controls are not able to limit exposures to the permissible level, limit access to high exposure areas, train workers and provide medical exams to highly exposed workers;
- provide greater certainty and ease of compliance to construction employers—including many small employers—by including a table of specified controls they can follow to be in compliance, without having to monitor exposures; and
- stagger compliance dates to ensure employers have sufficient time to meet the requirements, e.g., extra time for the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) industry to install new engineering controls and for all general industry employers to offer medical surveillance to employees exposed between the PEL and 50 micrograms per cubic meter and the action level of 25 micrograms per cubic meter.
The final rule is written as two standards: one for the construction industry and one for general industry and maritime.
Employers covered by the construction standard have until June 23, 2017, to comply with most requirements. Employers covered by the general industry and maritime standard have until June 23, 2018, to comply with most requirements; additional time is provided to offer medical exams to some workers and for hydraulic fracturing employers to install dust controls to meet the new exposure limit.
More information is available at www.osha.gov/silica.
In April 2015, the Construction Industry Safety Coalition (CISC) issued a report that found that the standards for the U.S. construction industry will cost the industry $5 billion per year—roughly $4 .5 billion per year more than OSHA’s estimates. The coalition cautioned that the flawed cost estimates reflect deeper flaws in the rule and urged the federal agency to reconsider its approach.
The CISC is made up of 25 trade associations, representing all sectors of the construction industry, including commercial building, heavy industrial production, home building, road repair, specialty trade contractors and material suppliers. Virtually every construction trade, task and activity is represented by the member associations of the CISC. Workplace safety and health is a priority for all members of the coalition, and each is committed to helping create safer construction jobsites for workers.
The members of the CISC include The American Road and Transportation Builders Association, American Society of Concrete Contractors, American Subcontractors Association, Associated Builders and Contractors, Associated General Contractors, Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry, Building Stone Institute, Concrete Sawing & Drilling Association, Construction & Demolition Recycling Association, Distribution Contractors Association, Interlocking Concrete Pavement Institute, International Council of Employers of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, Leading Builders of America, Marble Institute of America, Mason Contractors Association of America, Mechanical Contractors Association of America, National Association of Home Builders, National Association of the Remodeling Industry, National Demolition Association, National Electrical Contractors Association, National Roofing Contractors Association, National Utility Contractors Association, Natural Stone Council, The Association of Union Constructors and the Tile Roofing Institute.
The article, "Limiting Exposure," which appeared in the May/June 2014 issue of Construction & Demolition Recycling provides further background on the rule's impact on the demolition and recycling industries.