By Carol L. O’Riordan
Any company that is in the construction industry needs to be aware of a new rule on occupational exposure to respirable crystalline silica that was just issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
On March 25, 2016, OSHA set forth its long-awaited final rule setting tougher standards for occupational exposure to respirable crystalline silica. The rule establishes a new permissible exposure limit of 50 micrograms of respirable crystalline silica per cubic meter of air in an eight-hour period in all industries covered by the rule. This is a reduction from the current permissible exposure limit of 100 micrograms. The construction industry is one that will be directly affected by the rule.
The rule also includes other provisions to protect employees, such as requirements for exposure assessment, methods for controlling exposure, respiratory protection, medical surveillance, hazard communication and recordkeeping. The new rule will take effect on June 23, 2016.
Silica is a very common substance that is often found in the form of sand or quartz. Inhalation of silica when it is in a respirable state (that is, when it is broken up into tiny particles that can get into the lungs) can cause silicosis, lung cancer and other diseases. Respirable silica is often found on construction sites, since such common construction materials as asphalt, brick, cement, concrete, drywall, grout, mortar, stone, sand, and tile contain silica.
The new rule actually is divided into two rules – one for the construction industry, which employs about two million workers, and one for all other industries that have silica on their work sites. Employers in the construction industry will have a one-year grace period after the rule’s effective date to comply with it. That will run until June 23, 2017.
OSHA is taking this new rule very seriously. It estimates that when the final rule becomes effective, it will save more than 600 lives per year and will prevent more than 900 new cases of silicosis. OSHA also estimates that the final rule will produce net benefits of about $7.7 billion per year.
“The previous exposure limits were outdated and did not adequately protect workers,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health David Michaels in announcing the rule “Limiting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.”
Some of the steps that employers can use to reduce the presence of respirable silica, thus protecting their workers and complying with the OSHA rule, are quite straightforward. They include spraying the affected areas with water or using vacuums to capture the silica at its source.
Employers that would like assistance in understanding and complying with the OSHA rule are well advised to consult counsel that is familiar with the rule and with OSHA enforcement in general.